SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (KRON) — Privately owned security camera networks are spreading across San Francisco and many of them are paid for by a local cryptocurrency mogul.
The billionaire says his goal is to try and stop the rampant property crime that’s plaguing the city.
Shoppers in Union Square are likely too busy spending money to notice hundreds of cameras silently recording them.
High resolution surveillance networks are also keeping tabs on many parts of the city, like Japantown, the Tenderloin, and Fisherman’s Wharf. Cameras can be seen mounted from swanky mansions in Russian Hill to single-family homes in the Sunset.
It’s part of an effort called Safe City Camera Project where neighborhood-based networks help law enforcement crack down on crime.
Chris Larsen has spent millions of his personal fortune paying for some of these surveillance networks.
“The smash and grab thing is out of control in San Francisco,” Larsen said. “It’s gotten a little bit better but it’s like the worst in the country.”
But while the idea of a cryptocurrency mogul funding the citywide web of cameras sounds like the plot of a James Bond movie, the San Francisco-born billionaire says his motivation is to simply make the streets of his hometown safer.
“We kind of live ground zero in one of the hot spots of the smash and grab epidemic,” Larsen explains.
Larsen and his family live near the crooked part of Lombard Street. It’s a magnet for sightseers as well as the criminals who prey on them.
The streets around the tourist attraction are littered with what some call “San Francisco snow,” the broken remains of car windows.
Larsen has seen the heartbreak firsthand.
“They park and go to visit a tourist site and within sometimes seconds their cars are broken into, their luggage is gone, passports, cash and they are just bewildered,” he said. “These poor people. This is their first introduction to San Francisco, so it’s a menace to our neighborhood but more importantly, we see what’s it doing to these people who are visiting our city. They love our city and they are just having this terrible experience and that’s kind of what prompted this.”
Larsen has paid for several high resolution cameras to be mounted on his neighbors’ homes.
He’s also donated to merchant groups in other neighborhoods to help them launch their own networks.
The goal is to help law enforcement catch what he believes are groups of professional criminals driving the bulk of this crime wave plaguing the city.
“We want to get everyone to buy in and not feel like they’re under surveillance,” explains Kyra Worthy, the Executive Director of San Francisco SAFE.
Worthy talked to KRON4 near the Moraga Street tiled steps in the Sunset. The Instagram-worthy mosaic draws a lot of tourists and car break ins to what is otherwise a quiet residential area.
So much crime happens in that area that neighbors posted signs with pictures showing the aftermath.
“We just want to help the residents feel a little bit more safer, you know, that they can actually park the cars, they can have visitors,” Worthy said.
San Francisco SAFE is a non-profit that has helped areas like this one in the Sunset form neighborhood watch groups.
So far, they’ve helped at least 15 neighborhoods establish their own camera networks.
But Worthy says there is no big brother constantly watching what all of these cameras are filming.
“It’s not like I’m at a TV eating popcorn watching you park your car, take your Safeway bags out,” she explains.
Like the security networks run by the merchant groups, the non-profit acts as a go between to assist the police department collect video but only after a crime has been committed.
San Francisco SAFE estimates they get 40 requests from law enforcement a month.
There are so many camera networks that sometimes they can track criminals across the city.
“If they were over here at the Moraga steps breaking into cars, taking things, and then decide to go to West Portal on Irving to sell the things, or dump the car, there’s cameras there too,” Worthy said. “So we sort of put two and two together. That helps with being able to build a case, and hopefully, an arrest.”
These neighborhood camera networks were modeled on the elaborate setup that’s been keeping an eye on Union Square since 2013.
There are now nearly 400 cameras spread across 30 city blocks run by the area’s Business Improvement District.
In Union Square, the main target is retail theft which has been rampant and brazen in recent years.
And while department store security cameras can help capture the criminal activity inside, the camera network can see what happens before and after.
“You can see the person coming. You can see it take place. You can see the getaway. Who there with. What they’re wearing. It really helps tell the whole story,” said Karin Flood, with the Union Square Business Improvement District.
Union Square is the only surveillance network known to have a control center with multiple monitors. But up until recently, the chair in front of them has been mostly empty. They say no one has been actively watching the feeds.
But that’s changing in January when they’re expected to start staffing the control room in the overnight hours.
That’s because the middle of the night is when some of the more outrageous heists have happened.
Crews have been known to bust out high-end shop windows and drive off with truckloads of designer goods.
The Union Square Business Improvement District is also looking at new technology to help make monitoring all of those cameras even easier.
“They can detect unusual behavior,” Flood explains. ‘Somebody who’s running at 4 a.m. in the morning and they’re not out on a jog or a car that’s up on a sidewalk that really shouldn’t be there. Because about 370 cameras…there’s a lot of cameras to watch.”
These private camera networks have seen results.
Those behind the effort say footage captured by their cameras has helped in the recent bust of a fencing ring where more than $2 million in stolen property was recovered.
The cameras helped in the capture of a man accused of two unprovoked assaults, including the vicious kicking of a sleeping homeless man.
The spokesman for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office says while video is not the only evidence that they rely on, it is very helpful.
While eyewitness memories may fade, video does not.
In tomorrow’s installment of this in depth series, we’ll hear from a privacy rights advocate who’s raising concern about the potential for these private security cameras to track members of the public. Tune into KRON4 News at 10 p.m. to watch.
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