Camera Obscura: Union Square Has at Least 300 Surveillance Cameras

Early on a Saturday morning in September, a man was found lying unconscious in Union Square. His eyes were bruised and swollen shut; he bore head injuries suggesting a fall. He arrived at San Francisco General Hospital with two keys, no wallet, and no identification. The hospital staff listed him as “John Doe.”

The man, later identified as 43-year-old Fremont resident Manuel Gallegos, died the following day. San Francisco police opened an investigation, hoping that someone in the heavily trafficked shopping district had witnessed the incident. Or, perhaps, that it had been caught by a merchant security camera. Gallegos' body was uncovered in a part of San Francisco that's lined with hotels, department stores, late-night restaurants, theaters, and a spacious plaza. There are about 300 private security cameras within the Union Square Business Improvement District, an area that encompasses 27 blocks. Surely one of them must have seen something.

But Gallegos' case remains unsolved. No cameras captured what happened to him because, by design, they're not pointed at the public space. They're doing the camera equivalent of navel-gazing.

It turns out San Francisco has a history of saturating areas with cameras that do nothing to document, much less prevent, crime. In 2006, the Housing Authority began installing 178 cameras in public housing complexes. Though the idea was to deter crime as well as investigate it, the cameras evidently failed on both counts. They failed so spectacularly, in fact, that homicides in public housing increased that year.

Speaking at a public hearing in 2007, the Housing Authority's former assistant general counsel Tim Larsen blamed poor lighting, the camera's constrained field of vision, and the speed at which an individual moves when he's committing a murder. Not necessarily in that order.

That said, two well-placed private cameras at Folsom at Sixth streets caught a truck driver running over cyclist Amelie Le Moullac in August, providing evidence police investigators said they couldn't find.

The San Francisco Police Department doesn't have cameras on public streets; the Department of Emergency Management has 71 cameras scattered throughout the city, but none near Union Square. Even the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant St. has no cameras outside. Perhaps for now, the best solution is for merchants on Geary Street to start pointing their cameras outward.

That won't help Gallegos, but it might save the next John Doe.

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