Carlsbad, Calif., Votes to Expand License Plate Reader Program

After early success with 51 readers last year, the city is investing more than $530,000 to purchase more of them.

by Phil Diehl, The San Diego Union-Tribune / August 22, 2018

(TNS) — The 51 license plate readers that Carlsbad installed last year have been so successful at finding cars and criminals that the Police Department wants to add 35 more.

The automated cameras placed in combinations at 14 key intersections so far had photographed 48 million plates as of July 1, police Capt. Mickey Williams said Tuesday. Those license plates turned up 267 stolen or wanted vehicles, leading to 63 arrests.

“I’m glad we are using technology to our benefit,” said Councilman Keith Blackburn, a retired police officer. “It saves a lot of other people from being victims.”

The council voted 4-1 Tuesday morning, with Councilwoman Cori Schumacher opposed, to expand the system at a cost of more than $537,000.

“This has been an eye-opening foray into privacy challenges to me,” Schumacher said.

Carlsbad shares the license plate data it collects with hundreds of other agencies, she said. Despite the city’s stringent precautions, she added, there is no way to know whether any of those agencies are using the data in ways not authorized by the city.

For example, Sacramento County welfare fraud investigators used license plate numbers from a database owned by Vigilante Solutions, the same vendor Carlsbad uses, according to an Aug. 10 story in the Sacramento Bee. The civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation called the state’s use of the data “disturbing.”

Carlsbad already has a low crime rate, Schumacher said, and without more privacy protections she could not justify the additional expense.

Other than Schumacher, no one at the Carlsbad meeting opposed expansion.

A few residents spoke against the approval of the initial cameras last year, saying the system smacked of mass surveillance and had the potential to invade people’s privacy. Other residents have supported the system, emphasizing the need for public safety.

Several other law enforcement agencies in San Diego County, including the Sheriff’s Department, use mobile license plate readers in a few of their patrol vehicles. But hardly any use the fixed cameras, and none to the extent of Carlsbad.

The Carlsbad City Council approved the existing system of stationary license plate readers, to be mounted on public utility poles, on March 14, 2017, and completed the installation on Dec. 20.

Information gleaned from the system so far has helped with a number of cases unrelated to auto theft.

Multiple suspects have been arrested for burglary, and even attempted murder. Police located a missing woman reported as suicidal and took her to a hospital for an evaluation.

In one case, three suspects stole $5,000 worth of property, including an AR-15 assault rifle and two other firearms, from a Carlsbad residence. A neighbor’s surveillance camera recorded the incident and provided the make, model and color of the suspects’ vehicle.

Working with the state Department of Motor Vehicles, Carlsbad police obtained the vehicle’s license plate number, found the number in their database and located the suspects. The items stolen in Carlsbad and other things taken in previous burglaries were found and returned to their owners, Police Chief Neil Gallucci told the City Council.

“It’s been effective,” Gallucci said. “We are detecting and arresting criminals that in the past we would not have.”

Two-thirds of the 63 people arrested had a history of prior crimes and were either on parole or probation, and 18 of them had committed violent crimes, said Cindy Anderson, the city’s crime analyst. About 70 percent of the people arrested were from homes outside Carlsbad.

The cameras approved last year were installed primarily at key intersections near the city’s borders. The contract also included the installation of mobile license plate readers on six patrol cars, for a total cost of a little over $800,000.

The request approved Tuesday will add cameras near the city’s larger shopping centers on El Camino Real and Calle Barcelona, neighborhoods around motels on Avenida Encinas, and intersections on Carlsbad Village Drive, Carlsbad Boulevard and Tamarack Avenue.

No additional mobile plate readers were approved, but at Blackburn’s request, the council voted 4-1, with Schumacher opposed, to consider possible additional mobile cameras at a future meeting.

©2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.