A homicide detective looked up from the scene of a fatal shooting in San Diego's Gaslamp District in August 2018 and saw something unusual: The streetlight glowing overhead didn't look like a normal streetlight.
That's because it wasn't. The LED light on the pole was also equipped with an optical sensor. As it illuminated the city, it was capturing 24-hour video footage of the scenes beneath it.
"We had no idea what the quality of video would be, or what it would capture," said Jeffrey Jordon, who leads special projects and legislative affairs for the San Diego Police Department. "The first time we saw it we were like, 'Holy cow, that's really good video.'"
The San Diego Police Department knew that the city had been recently outfitted with a few thousand such "smart" streetlights, installed to monitor car and foot traffic, Jordon says. But until that moment, he said the department had not yet thought to ask the city for the light's recordings.
After that week, police started regularly pulling video from the lamp post sensors. The rest of the city — and several members of San Diego's own city council — wouldn't find out about the practice until months later, when activists raised concerns at community meetings and the San Diego Union-Tribune and Voice of San Diego reporter Jesse Marx started digging. To date, police have used streetlight footage nearly 400 times, to investigate cases ranging from sexual assault to vandalism. Records reviewed by Bloomberg CityLab and reports from the Voice of San Diego show that in two weeks over May and June, police requested access to footage in cases of "civil unrest" and "looting" associated with Black Lives Matter protests at least 35 times.