Council signs off on license plate readers
Council signs off on license plate readers
Alameda police will soon be equipped with license plate readers that can scan and store thousands of license plate numbers that can be automatically checked against lists of stolen cars and wanted criminal suspects and saved for future use in criminal investigations.
The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to allow the police department to spend up to $80,000 to purchase four of the license plate readers from Livermore-based Vigilant Solutions. Police Chief Paul Rolleri said the readers should be operational by the end of this summer.
Council members dismissed concerns expressed by some residents and privacy advocates who said they think collecting the information violates the privacy of people who have done nothing wrong and who have expressed concerns about it being misused. They said the license plate and location data the systems will collect is already effectively public since the cars it will track are on public streets and that they feel the department is putting adequate safeguards in place to insure proper use of that data.
“I do understand a number of the concerns that were raised, especially from minorities who fear being tracked. At the same time, I feel there are adequate safeguards in this policy,” Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said.
In a report to the council, Rolleri said the readers help police weed out vehicles of interest – stolen cars and ones bearing missing people or criminal suspects – from the thousands of cars that cross their paths.
“It automates a tedious, distracting, and manual process that officers regularly complete in their daily operations, and vastly improves their efficiency and effectiveness in identifying vehicles of interest among the hundreds or thousands they observe during routine patrol,” the report says.
Rolleri said the plate readers will help the department combat what he said was a rise in vehicle thefts and other property crimes and to help other departments by finding suspects who may pass through Alameda.
“It’s not just about our crime rate. It’s about being a cooperative partner with other law enforcement agencies as well,” he said Tuesday.
Officers captured 97,000 license plate records during a 2013 trial of one of the systems, 85 of them matches to “hot lists” of suspected criminals, stolen vehicles and missing people.
Only two people came to Tuesday’s meeting to speak out against the purchase of the license plate readers, saying they don’t think the data should be retained and questioning who would access it and how it would be used. But several residents and privacy advocates following the meeting’s progress on The Alamedan’s Twitter feed questioned whether the readers will really help combat crime and also, whether the data they collect should be retained.
“Alameda should not adopt ALPR w/o a policy spelling out how the public will exercise oversight,” wrote Matt Cagle, whose Twitter profile lists him as a policy fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which has raised strong concerns about police departments’ use of the plate readers and retention of the data they collect.
A draft policy for use and storage of the data the scanners will collect – plate numbers and the locations where they were collected – was presented to the council for its review but did not need council approval Tuesday. Still, council members sought and won a pair of changes to the policy: The removal of a clause that would have permitted stationary cameras to be erected and an additional audit detailing the department’s use of the data the systems collect during the first year they are used.
The new draft of the department’s license plate reader policy permits most of the data to be stored for up to six months – less than the year Rolleri originally sought. Data the department determines it will need for a civil case or criminal investigation could be stored on portable media for longer, the draft policy says.
Ashcraft said she’d gotten e-mails from residents who feared the systems could be used to racially profile drivers or to track where people worship or attend school, while Chen sought assurances the systems and the data they collect will be secure. The draft policy prohibits using the data for personal reasons or to harass or intimidate people or groups. If put into effect as written, anyone who violates the policy could be fired.
The policy also bars release of the data – even someone’s own personal data – through public records requests.
Rolleri said the department will also work to draft an agreement to store and share the data it collects with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, a “fusion” center that collects and shares data among participating police agencies. Until then, the data is expected to be stored on servers maintained by Vigilant Solutions, though it wasn’t immediately clear how or if the company would use the data Alameda collects.
The company’s website boasts a national database containing more than 1.8 billion “detections” culled from law enforcement and private data that it says is available to law enforcement subscribers; in a staff report to the council, Rolleri said the information “provides intangible value from an investigative perspective.” He said Tuesday he had “no interest” in sharing the information Alameda collects with any private entities the company may work with, though he would be willing to allow the company to share it with other law enforcement personnel. A contract with the company has not yet been drafted.
The department also needs to train officers to use the readers and decide who will be allowed to access the data they collect for investigations.
Police first sought permission to buy the license plate readers in October. At that time, the council said the department could pursue grant funding for one of the plate readers, which was estimated to cost about $22,000, but the police department wasn’t able to obtain the federal homeland security funding it sought for the tool.
Council members also sought controls on use of the data the systems would collect. And city staff held a public meeting in February to discuss implementation of the license plate reader systems.
The money for the plate readers will come from funds the department hasn’t spent due to staffing vacancies.