San Juan Capistrano City Council members are looking at a new program to subsidize buying security cameras in their downtown that would require the footage would be up for grabs for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

Yet at the same time, sheriff’s officials noted to Voice of OC that the downtown area doesn’t have a crime problem.

The program was proposed by Mayor Derek Reeve, who told his council colleagues at their Aug. 2 meeting it was something he’d been considering for years. 

“I had an idea of trying to figure out how we could provide additional resources that were cost effective to law enforcement … the way big cities around the world do that is by having cameras in public areas,” Reeve said.

Reeve said he wanted to do it through businesses to avoid concerns from people who would say the city government recording its residents was an invasion of privacy. 

“Even though you don’t actually have a right to privacy standing on a city sidewalk, it’s a concern many people express,” Reeve said. “So I was trying to think of a way we could encourage video for law enforcement to deal with criminal activity that may occur … but that wasn’t originated from the city government itself.” 

However, Carrie Braun, a spokesperson for the Orange County Sheriffs’ Department, said there isn’t an existing crime problem in the city’s downtown area that the policy would help address. 

“There is not a crime problem in downtown San Juan Capistrano,” Braun said. 

According to data from the Orange County Equity Map built by the Orange County Health Care Agency, violent crime rates are low, stretching from 45 to 68 violent crimes per 10,000 residents depending on where you live in the city. 

Property crime rates sit between 104 and 128 crimes per 10,000 residents according to the same data. 

In comparison, in Fullerton violent crimes range from 72 to 105 per 10,000 residents, and property crimes 224 to 275. 

A split city council voted 3-2 to consider looking at a program in a future meeting. 

Reeve said businesses would be required to turnover footage when asked by sheriff’s officials if they take part in the subsidy.

“If they accepted the grant for surveillance cameras, part of the condition would be if the sheriffs’ department ever came to them asking to look at video footage of a certain time, they’d be required to provide that,” Reeve said. 

That rule would not apply to cameras recording the inside of a business or in non-public areas. 

Other councilmembers were less enthusiastic about the program than Reeve, with Councilman Howard Hart asking if there was any crime problem to be concerned about. 

“I’m concerned we’re going to be…investing in security cameras for private businesses based on a notional criminal problem that really isn’t extensive, and at the same time through a backdoor eroding people’s civil liberties,” Hart said, ultimately voting against the motion. 

According to the sheriffs’ department, which is contracted as the police department in San Juan Capistrano, they don’t have a problem getting ahold of security footage.

“The Department is supportive of cameras in the community where footage could be requested in the event of an incident, but businesses are not required to provide footage to law enforcement,” said Carrie Braun, spokesperson for the sheriff’s department, in a statement to Voice of OC.  

Braun also said that the “vast majority of the time,” businesses give up security footage when asked, and if investigators need a video they can obtain a warrant for the footage to force the business to turn it over. 

While no official policy has been presented yet, Reeve said the final draft would offer some form of an incentive from the city to purchase the cameras on the condition any footage from cameras facing public areas would be turned over to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department on request. 

Councilman Sergio Farias pointed out how security cameras like the Ring doorbell system aren’t that expensive anymore, and that he didn’t see why the council needed to help pay for them. 

“They’re not a huge cost,” Farias said, agreeing with Hart’s concerns about the cameras monitoring residents. 

Councilmen Troy Bourne and John Taylor supported the move, with Bourne saying he was open to exploring the idea but was also concerned about the privacy questions. 

“I’d be curious to know what other best practices are being put in place,” Bourne said. “Your motion as worded is to direct staff to explore the potential … I’m open to learning a bit more.” 

The council next meets on August 16, and the agenda can be reviewed here

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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