Debate over crime cameras brings out the clueless in S.F. 

At some point in the near future, we may find out if a picture is worth more than a thousand words — maybe something to the tune of three to five years.

That’s at the core of the debate over the placement of surveillance cameras in high-crime areas of San Francisco, an issue that pits the left versus the very, very left — an ideological divide that in San Francisco is far wider than most people could imagine. And it’s a gap that usually splits those who have seen or experienced crime and those who use their politics as a shield against reality.

This week marked a rare time when the forces of reason prevailed, punctuated by the Police Commission’s unanimous approval of another 25 cameras at gritty areas around San Francisco. But it was not without the usual theatrics that fill The City’s official public meeting calendar each week, the endless rounds of proselytizing filling the commission’s chambers for close to four hours.

You can expect any issue that loosely covers the term civil liberties to bring out the masses in San Francisco, and the hearing on surveillance cameras didn’t disappoint, with more than 100 people testifying on the promise and evils of the new eyes in the sky. Of course, Big Brother was mentioned, as was George Orwell’s dark futuristic vision in "1984’’ — and there were even a few facts mentioned, such as the revelation that San Francisco has some really crime-ridden neighborhoods, and that you can’t place a police officer on every corner of The City.

Yet, thankfully there was one argument that commissioners just couldn’t brush aside. And that is that people who live in and near neighborhoods rife with prostitution, drug-dealing, robberies and frenetic gang activity desperately want surveillance cameras, and the more the better. It’s a cry that’s been heard for some time around town, and given the relatively paltry cost of the equipment. it seems but a trifle to fret over.

Still, that would never block people here from trying to stop something before it starts. The Police Commission gallery was full of people who decried the use of technology, citing it as an invasion of privacy that creates an illusion to solving crimes. I count myself among those opposed to more government interference in personal privacy, but that’s not really a big issue here. These cameras are going on public streets, not in bedrooms, and those who object are ignoring the obvious, ideology serving here as a highly effective blinder.

No one has ever said cameras stop crime, but they may deter some and they definitely catch them on film. Last year surveillance cameras led to the apprehension of a man who shot a 13-year-old girl in the Western Addition, and also provided footage of a midday murder just blocks from there in 2005.

The people who complain about the use of cameras on the street say nothing about their presence in their corner store, the post office, the subway, Macy’s, Safeway or just about every commercial enterprise in existence. They’re now found in taxis, buses, trains and of course, airports, let alone public buildings, such as the one that played back the proceedings at the Police Commission for a cable TV audience.

How effective will they be here? We don’t know yet — San Francisco only has about two dozen in use so far, with another 25 on the way. The mayor’s goal is to install about 100 of them in hot spots around The City and then study the results, an instance where having data is a good way to find out if a program is effective. But putting the cart before the horse is a favored San Francisco pastime, so for a lot of people the results are already in.

The cameras by themselves are not a crime-solving strategy, but part of an overall network designed to stop criminals before or after the act. There’s no doubt that people with thick rap sheets don’t like them, and they’re the people who are really infringing on our civil liberties. You won’t hear much talk about privacy invasion from people who live in public housing — they’re clamoring for more surveillance cameras and anything else they think might make their lives safer.

And the addition of cameras just might work. Other cities, such New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, have come to swear by them. Chicago alone has more than 2,000 of them, with more on the way, frigid winters and sweltering summers not being enough to deter criminals from doing that thing they do.

There’s a reason San Francisco’s reputation is so fractured — and it’s not based on any recorded image.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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