Smart streetlights coming to Pacific Beach; city drops Slow Street plan for Diamond

One of the smart streetlights installed the City of San Diego in 2019.
(John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The City of San Diego plans to revive its smart streetlights technology, said police during the April 19 Pacific Beach Town Council meeting.

Lieutenants Charles Lara and Eric Portnoy lauded the effectiveness of streetlights mounted with automated license plate readers (ALPR) and cameras videoing public right-of-ways in solving serious crimes. They said there are features that will protect public privacy and prevent police abuse.

The officers sought to enlist public support in advance of upcoming hearings before the Privacy Advisory Board and City Council.

“The initial 500 rollout that we’re proposing; that’s what we need,” Portnoy said. “We need you to call in if you support it.”

“Even if you don’t, we want that input as well,” Lara added.

Known as smart streetlights, the city first installed cameras on 3,200 streetlamps in 2016 to better regulate traffic flow. According to Portnoy, police learned later that the cameras recorded street activity within a block radius 24 hours a day. Evidence from the cameras was used in 400 criminal investigations from August 2018 until September 2020, when the system was deactivated amid controversy.

The equipment has not been used or maintained since, hence the proposal for 500 new smart streetlights at a total cost of $3.5 million, including installation. At least four would be in Pacific Beach.

“What happens when technology expires, it isn’t maintained and upgraded, it becomes obsolete,” Portnoy said. “So there’s a 75 percent failure rate with the current technology, which is why we have to refresh and start over.”

The proposed new smart streetlights will function within the legal infrastructure created by a surveillance ordinance last year, Portnoy said. Private property will be masked from video recording; data will be owned by the city and stored for 15 days before being permanently erased (30 days for ALPR data); police will not actively monitor videos or ALPR but only review relevant footage for approved investigations of felony crimes (not misdemeanors). Logs of police retrieval of videos and an ALPR transparency portal will be available to the public and the smart streetlights will have no audio recording or facial recognition capabilities.

When asked by an attendee for assurances that the system won’t be misused, Lara said the new system leaves a “footprint” of anyone who enters it and said police would not want to jeopardize a new investigative enhancement by abusing it.

“We’re looking at it as a public safety tool,” Lara said. “And a police accountability tool. (The cameras) watch us too.”

In helping to streamline investigations for a department understaffed by 109 detectives and about 200 patrol officers, Lara added that the evidence found in videos and ALPR data will assist in proving cases, whatever the verdict.

“Also it excludes people,” said Lara. “Hey that person actually did not commit the crime. Or it was self defense.”

Although smart streetlights are expected to increase conviction rates as well as plea bargains as opposed to lengthy trials while reducing investigation times and costs as well as lawsuits against the police, Portnoy contended that they might best serve as deterrents.

“If criminals know ... San Diego has cameras and situational cameras, they may not come to our city to commit these crimes,” he said.

In selecting smart streetlights locations, Lara said police relied on crime statistics and input from divisional captains to focus on sites with high rates of violent crimes, particularly gun violence.

A year after the council held a joint meeting with the PB Planning Group in April 2022 to discuss the Slow Street program promoting non-vehicular travel on Diamond Street implemented by the city, Marcella Bothwell, who is in both groups, said the city has decided to ditch the program and implement traffic calming measures instead.

The Planning Group learned the city will erect bollards, or posts, in the middle of Diamond Street at its intersections with Cass and Fanuel streets. The bollards will preclude left hand turns at those intersections for vehicles traveling west on Diamond, Bothwell said.

“It’s actually going in, in June,” she said. “So it’s kind of a done deal.”

Planning Group member Iain Richardson expressed disappointment that the city disregarded the community’s input.

“There was a lot of work done to improve the signage and give clarity to people on how to use the street,” Richardson said. “None of that carried into the design. ... What we voted for as a planning group last year was a street that is safe for people to live and for people to use. My feeling is this goes nowhere close to where we were hoping it was going to go.”

Bothwell said she hopes the measures curb some inappropriate behavior of people passing through the residential area.

“It gets kind of loud in the middle of the night when people are walking down the street or bicycling or rollerblading, etc.,” she said.


6:02 p.m. May 12, 2023: Regarding Diamond Street: According to Kelly Terry, a senior public information officer with the City of San Diego, “The City has not abandoned slow streets, but rather is moving on to the next phase of PB Pathway implementation along Diamond Street.” She said the city plan is to move forward with installing “materials that can be adjusted or expanded as needed.” In addition, there is no set date for installation, but the project is planned for this summer.