The Color of Surveillance in San Diego


People of Color Have Privacy Rights Too!

by Christie Hill

Photo via ABC 10 News YouTube.

Earlier this month, we learned that three San Diego neighborhoods are unknowing hosts of a new surveillance technology called ShotSpotter. It works by detecting the sound of gunshots and sending information to the police to allow them to respond to the area where gunshots were detected. We learned that the San Diego Police Department acquired ShotSpotter with no public input and only limited input from city council. There is no publicly-approved policy for how SDPD will deploy this technology that can potentially be used to surreptitiously listen-in on conversations within earshot of a ShotSpotter device.

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That SDPD installed ShotSpotter in Encanto, Skyline and Paradise Hills — three neighborhoods where large numbers of people of color live, contributes to the already disproportionate impact that over-policing has on San Diego’s communities of color. Further, it raises serious privacy and racial profiling concerns that must be addressed about these surveillance devices and SDPD’s rationale for deploying them first and only in these three San Diego neighborhoods.

As many people know, American law enforcement has a long history of spying on and profiling people of color. It’s deeply troubling that while the technology and tools of surveillance advance, the color of surveillance remains the same — and basic transparency, oversight, and accountability remain the exception, not the rule.

Image via NBC 7/39

In recent decades, the federal government has sent billions of dollars in grants to local police to buy invasive surveillance technologies. Residents of affected neighborhoods have been largely kept in the dark as surveillance expands without limits and safeguards for rights. Because so few police departments have transparent policies, these new technologies can perpetuate systems of abusive policing and further undermine trust in law enforcement, particularly in communities of color where over-policing is rampant and relationships are strained. The public must compel law enforcement to bring surveillance decisions out of the shadows. Transparency provides the public with valuable information that can help stop discriminatory surveillance before it starts.

In California, communities are fighting back against the secretive purchase and unaccountable use of surveillance technologies. In Santa Clara County, county officials refused to sign off on the purchase of a Stingray, a cell phone surveillance device that collects the location and identifying information of surveillance targets and bystanders alike. After it was discovered that the San Jose Police Department secretly purchased a drone, the ACLU of California joined local activists from CAIR and the Coalition for Justice and Accountability to demand public hearings, forcing the police to apologize, place plans on hold, and host town hall meetings.

We can demand positive change in San Diego too.

San Diegans must be equal partners in any decision about law enforcement’s use of surveillance technology in their neighborhoods. Law enforcement must inform the public when, where and why surveillance is being considered, what it is intended to do, and what it will really cost — both in dollars and in individual rights. Proposals for deploying surveillance technology must include strong mechanisms for transparency, accountability and oversight.

Reclaiming The Community. (Image via

We call on the San Diego City Council to hold hearings about this new technology, invite Chief Zimmerman to explain how ShotSpotter is currently deployed and considerations for future deployment, engage in meaningful public discussions, and develop a well-considered policy for its use. Certainly, if the public finds value in SDPD’s planned deployment of surveillance technology, transparency about its outcomes is also essential for true community oversight and accountability.

In San Diego and throughout the state, the ACLU is working with community groups to speak out against discriminatory surveillance and its effect on people of color, activists, and the poor. ACLU of California released a guide, Smart About Surveillance: A Guide for Community Transparency, Accountability, and Oversight, which is a useful resource for people who want to stop high-tech racial profiling and make sure community voices are heard when decisions about surveillance technologies are being made.

Privacy, including the right to be free from unwarranted government surveillance, is guaranteed under the California Constitution. This means that Californians do not have to choose between safe neighborhoods and protecting their fundamental privacy rights.



ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties

We defend and preserve the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and US laws.