New Smart Streetlights Aid Law Enforcement in San Diego
In 2018, the City of San Diego began a smart streetlight initiative with the intention of providing law enforcement with tools to better monitor the streets of America’s Finest City.
These state-of-the-art streetlights are equipped with energy-saving LED lights, microphones, cameras, and sensors that can detect gunshots, detect open parking spaces, and even measure air quality and the traffic flow of both vehicles and pedestrians.
While a Los Angeles Times report on the rollout of these lights stated that it is unclear what the collected sensor data will ultimately be used for, these lights are making waves in criminal investigations. Specifically, video evidence taken from the 3,200 new cameras has proven useful.
How Are These Smart Streetlights Being Implemented?
The first time evidence from a smart streetlight was used in a case was in the summer of 2018. A violent fight broke out and resulted in one person losing his life. While the incident was initially considered a murder investigation, video evidence exonerated the suspect in question. When law enforcement watched the streetlight video, it became clear that the suspect acted in self-defense and the charges were dropped.
Since that initial case, video from smart streetlights has been used in more than 140 police investigations, and that number is only going to grow. Law enforcement officials have been open about how useful these cameras have become and stated that they view smart streetlight footage as frequently as twenty times a month.
While these cameras have proven useful in criminal cases, either by providing evidence to support criminal charges or to exonerate suspects, the new surveillance system has also been criticized for not being adequately regulated and its potential to violate privacy. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have vocally addressed concerns of rights violations resulting from these smart streetlights. They argue for the need for “meaningful oversight” and accountability measures for police use of streetlamp camera footage.
Matt Cagle of the ACLU stated, “Decisions about how to use surveillance technology should not be made unilaterally by law enforcement or another city agency.”
At the time of this writing, about 100 law enforcement investigators in the sex crimes, robbery, traffic, internal affairs, and homicide units have direct access to video footage collected by these smart streetlights. Policy within the San Diego Police Department states that video footage should only be reviewed in connection with violent crimes, and that any officers outside of units dealing in violent crime can only access the footage if it is approved by a “designated authority.”
These new smart streetlights are an interesting foil in criminal investigations in San Diego. They can serve both law enforcement in seeking prosecutions and help exonerate innocent suspects who are charged with crimes they did not commit. While there are still questions on how to use these surveillance devices in an ethical manner, they have been useful for both criminal prosecution as well as defense.
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