City Attorney Mara Elliott is interviewed near an impromptu memorial to the security guard who was shot and killed outside the Alpha Project bridge shelter. Photo by Chris Jennewein

City Attorney Mara Elliott on Tuesday defended San Diego’s program to install so-called “smart streetlights” with cameras as an unexpected new crime solver.

To date, police have used streetlight recordings to help solve nearly 250 crimes, including murders, sexual assaults, kidnappings, carjackings, arsons and hate crimes,” said Elliott.

She spoke with the press outside an Alpha Project bridge shelter, where a security guard was shot and killed beneath a smart streetlight in December. Video from the device led to the arrest of two suspects within days.

Smart Streetlights report from City Attorney’s Office. (PDF)

Elliott has been criticized by political opponents and community groups over a 2016 contract with a General Electric subsidiary to install 4,200 of the lights at key intersections. Her critics cite privacy issues and accuse her of a conflict on interest because she owns a small amount of General Electric stock.

“I’m not going to turn my back on a powerful crime-solving tool that removes murderers and rapists from our streets,” said Elliott, who accused her critics of “telling a bunch of lies.”

The streetlights record both audio and video, which is stored for 5 days and then deleted. The video capability was originally intended for traffic management, but in 2018 the San Diego Police Department began requesting video to solve crimes.

Elliott noted that the contract was approved only after a successful pilot program that preceded her election as city attorney. And she downplayed any privacy issues, saying police can only use the data upon a formal request to help solve a specific crime.

The smart streetlight outside the Alpha Project shelter that took video of murder suspects.

“If someone snatches my two children off the street, I’m going to be the first to ask for that footage,” she said.

After the press conference, Genevieve Jones-Wright, a candidate for San Diego County district attorney in 2016, said community groups she represents don’t oppose use of streetlight video to solve crimes, but want clear rules regarding such use.

“We need an ordinance that is overarching regarding all surveillance technology,” she said.

Cory Briggs, a public advocacy lawyer who is running for city attorney, has criticized the streetlight project because, he contends, the data collected becomes the property of General Electric and can be sold.

“The real issue is that Mara Elliott sold out San Diegans’ privacy to General Electric, creating the country’s largest mass-surveillance and data-collection program of residents without any oversight,” Briggs said in a statement.

But he added that he supports lawful use of the streetlight cameras to assist law enforcement in solving crimes.

But Elliott said that while General Electric can sell some aggregated data from the streetlights, the original data is owned and controlled by the city.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.