S.F. Japantown security cameras praised by most

Community members have largely applauded the installation of a network of security cameras in San Francisco’s Japantown, in part for its ability to track individuals in the public spaces of the ethnic enclave.

The Japantown SafeCity Program, administered by the Japantown Community Benefit District through an anonymous $750,000 grant, was one of the most anticipated improvements sought as part of the JCBD’s work when voters approved an extra assessment on the neighborhood’s commercial corridor properties in 2017. The JCBD contracted San Francisco-based Applied Video Solutions to install and maintain the infrastructure of the network of cameras recording footage of public spaces in the neighborhood to help track and reconstruct any incidents that occur within the area.

Grace Horikiri, executive director of the JCBD, told the Nichi Bei Weekly she had received 22 video retrieval requests since the program was activated in December of 2018. Dimitri Shimolin, AVS’ co-founder and CEO, said during the July 10 JCBD board meeting that his company is moving into the fourth phase of camera deployment, which would add cameras along the Buchanan Mall and cover the alleys connecting the pedestrian malls to the Nihonmachi Parking Corporation’s parking lots.

According to Shimolin, once phase four is completed, his company would be finished with the initially drafted plans for the JCBD’s surveillance network. He said the company is looking to develop suggestions for a larger network in a potential fifth phase extending beyond the benefit district’s boundaries.

“There are some hot-spot areas based on crime data that we have received originally and we have validated that those are still hot-spot areas,” Shimolin said. “These include the intersection of Webster and Sutter, Laguna and Bush, Buchanan and Bush. And so to the degree that we can, we’re gonna do our best to provide solutions for covering those areas.”

The additional coverage would be included in the SafeCity Program’s network, but the JCBD would need to discuss how the additional coverage would be integrated into the existing network. The CBD is chartered to operate only within it’s city-assigned assessment area and any extension beyond its boundaries would necessitate a separate contract with outside entities to maintain. Shimolin said the St. Francis Cooperative located across the street from Japantown has also inquired with his company to explore a camera network of their own.

Shimolin also said in his monthly report that the JCBD’s cameras helped convince two people in juvenile court to plead guilty on a case, adding that the district attorney’s office had extended its thanks to the JCBD for implementing its system.

San Francisco Police Department Capt. Joseph Engler, head of the Northern Station, also commended the camera system in a phone interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly. He noted a robust camera system helps the police reconstruct what happened after an incident, such as two collisions involving pedestrians on Geary Boulevard.

“We were able to find some footage how those events unfolded and, as tragic as it was, it would have been worse if the events went unsolved, so that was really helpful,” Engler said. He added the JCBD’s network had also helped apprehend a suspect in at least one car burglary case.

Engler added that while he couldn’t recall if the JCBD’s camera footage had directly helped the SFPD, he said cameras in Japantown aided police in reuniting Lily, the Golden Retriever, with her owner and arresting a suspect in a high profile July 13 dognapping case.

Kirsten Fletcher, property manager for the Kinokuniya Building, said she was pleased with the new camera network, which she uses to keep track of people causing trouble in her building. Fletcher, who started working at the Kinokuniya Building last year, said the new exterior cameras from the JCBD help a great deal because she would otherwise lose sight of people she is tracking within her building.

“I’ve been able to start a file on some of the disruptive kids that have been harassing our security officers … riding bikes around inside,” she said. “We’re just building a case, we got a case number. And now we have great video and images too … we’re not looking to prosecute these kids, we just want to talk to their parents and tell them, ‘can we work together to like, cut this out?’”

Local community members were also generally pleased by the camera network. On the Buchanan Mall, Maki Watanabe of Sanko Kitchen Essentials also said they had relied on the cameras earlier in the year when someone smashed in their front door at night to steal some 30 cooking knives. While the cameras installed across the street at the Buchanan Hotel were not enough to catch the culprit, Watanabe expressed hope the cameras would continue to aid in deterring or catching burglars breaking into parked cars, a perennial issue for the Japantown neighborhood for the past decade.

Yasuaki Miura, owner of Super Mira on the corner of Sutter and Buchanan, expressed approval for the cameras, saying the neighborhood had needed a system for years.

“Whenever something happens, you can use it to find the culprit. That’s the most important thing,” he said in Japanese. “If you’re doing something bad and are caught on camera, you might feel concerned, but ordinary people going about their daily business probably don’t really care too much. So people who are concerned are likely people who are doing bad things, right?”

Some in the community, however, felt the surveillance system would be misused against vulnerable people. Diana England, a homeless woman who often sleeps on the Buchanan Mall, said she had noticed the new security cameras and said she feels she has no privacy in the Japantown area.

“(I’m) not begging, … I don’t have a paper that says ‘I am homeless help me,’ I don’t have anything like that.” she said. ”I only wish to rest.”

England said property owners came to her with footage of her recorded by cameras, demanding she leave the area. While she felt cameras could be used to help someone in trouble, she said property owners instead use it to police her and order her to leave.

“One thing that bothers me, they don’t want homeless people here. You don’t know my life, you don’t know what I go through. How I lost my place, how I became homeless, anything, but they just don’t want nobody here,” she said. “I’ll be honest with you, it’s sometimes annoying, because you have no peace. … They use it to protect their business, not you.”

While England told the Nichi Bei Weekly she is not vandalizing any properties and cleans up after herself, several community members contested her statement, adding that she has a drinking problem.

The Rev. Koshi Kurotaki of the Soto Mission of San Francisco said he did not mind homeless people sleeping on the front steps of his temple as long as they cleaned up after themselves and moved on during the day. He added, however, that some are more violent or dirty than others. Kurotaki, along with Kyoko Tamaki, his temple’s board president, expressed a need to fortify their security system after a homeless person broke into a disused stairwell located on the side of their building by cutting through netting meant to keep birds from roosting inside.

“We didn’t think we needed to worry about things like homeless people who would cut (the netting),” Tamaki told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Kurotaki and Tamaki’s description of the homeless person who broke into their stairwell, also fit England.

Tamaki said she is considering better camera coverage for the future and was pleased to hear the JCBD’s camera network may extend beyond the district’s boundaries.

Overall, Tamaki said she laments having to install security for the temple as a religious organization, but said it was a necessity. She added she was fine with the constant recording as long as the footage wasn’t permanently retained and deleted after a period of time, which the JCBD system does.

“There’s positives and negatives, but overall, in this age, we may have to realize that we have to have it,” she said.

Editor’s Note: This online story has been edited to reflect changes from the Aug. 1, 2019 print edition. Accuracy is fundamental in journalism. Yasuaki Miura was incorrectly attributed to have said that cameras in San Francisco’s Japantown had caught someone relieving herself on Japantown property. We apologize for any inconvenience this error may have caused.

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