San Francisco's crime cameras zoom in on the innocent 

San Francisco’s crime cameras were first installed in 2005 as a crime-fighting tool when The City’s homicide tally reached a decade-high 96. Advocates billed the cameras, which continuously record the activities in crime hot spots throughout San Francisco, as a creative new way to deter illegal behavior.

For a map of locations of San Francisco's crime cameras and more information, click on the photo to the right.

But the cameras have since become more than just a crime-fighting tool. They have also become a tool exploited by defense lawyers who often seek footage from the cameras to exonerate falsely accused clients. The footage is not monitored in real time, but can be reviewed upon request by attorneys, police and prosecutors.

Nearly one-third of 109 requests for footage made last year came from defense attorneys, according to data supplied by The City in response to a public records request by The San Francisco Examiner.

Criminal defendants have been cleared or had charges reduced when footage proved their alibis or disproved police or witnesses’ accounts of incidents.

“We’ve incorporated the existence of surveillance tapes into our practice,” Public Defender Jeff Adachi said, adding that his office has a list of all the city surveillance cameras and his attorneys are trained to request the footage.

“It is hit or miss. You have an obligation to secure that evidence,” Adachi said. “They have proven valuable in some cases.”

Deputy Public Defender Kwixuan Maloof was the defense attorney in one of the more well-known cases where surveillance camera footage resulted in someone being exonerated. Maloof’s client, 44-year-old Michael Cooper, had a 2008 murder charge dropped when the footage showed Cooper was acting in defense of a disabled woman.

“In that case, there were witnesses that gave statements to the police that were blatantly false,” Maloof said.

The 71 cameras, once at the center of budget battles and political sparring over civil liberties, remain in operation in 24 locations, selected for their high-crime concentrations. The system costs $200,000 annually to operate. 

James Hammer, a former prosecutor and police commissioner, said the cameras’ effectiveness in deterring crime remains unclear, but when it comes to the courtroom, “they can cut both ways. They tell the truth.”

And while the cameras were never billed as a way to help out public defenders, Hammer said if the footage exonerates the falsely accused, then “that’s a win for everybody.”

The Police Department has called the cameras another tool in the crime-fighting kit, but it doesn’t track the data of how useful the footage might have been in investigations and convicting the accused.

Paul Henderson, a policy adviser to Mayor Ed Lee on public safety issues, said city surveillance footage plays an important role in policing and prosecution.

“[Cameras] are used every single day in helping the prosecutors,” said Henderson, who once worked in the District Attorney’s Office. “You just don’t hear those stories; it’s the stuff you never hear.”

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