On Jan. 27, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that it had finalized a contract with a San Francisco Bay Area company for technology that would help the agency to track undocumented immigrants through license plate readers.
The federal agency stated that it was using Vigilant Solutions’ license plate readers in place of local police cooperation. The federal agency said that it was signing the contract because agents were going to have to use other methods to get what they need regarding intelligence on undocumented individuals. This is because many California cities declared themselves sanctuary cities, and last fall Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law (SB 54
) that places limits on local police agencies from cooperating with ICE.
Against this backdrop, the city of Alameda Police Chief Paul Rolleri, who had had some success with four license plate readers, had, in fact, a contract with Vigilant and was asking the city council for $500,000 for 13 more to be mounted on tunnels and bridges into his small island-city.
The Bay Area town is small with a population of 78,000, which is located on two islands adjacent to and south of Oakland. Because it is located on two islands, vehicle access includes three bridges from Oakland as well as two one-way tubes. Mounting cameras on these ingresses and egresses would help the city prevent petty crimes, which have become an issue in the past years.
“Overall, crime is down [in the area], and violent crime has dropped dramatically in the last five years,” Rolleri said. “But property crime is climbing, this is true for the whole San Francisco Bay Area.” The license plate readers mounted on four squad cars were deployed to get a handle on property crime, which has seen a 12 percent increase in the past year, he said.
The public discussion at the Feb. 6 city council meeting was robust. Citizens were concerned that they were being monitored, and they worried that the department fed the collected information into a more extensive database that Vigilant is known to maintain. When he went into the city council meeting to ask for funds, what happened, he says, was a perfect storm.
A vice president from Vigilant was in attendance along with a representative from the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), a local, state and federal alliance law enforcement and public safety agencies to communicate about terrorist activities. Rolleri addressed the city council for over an hour into the early hours of the morning. In addition to the law enforcement presence, privacy advocates also made a show of force. The meeting was long and fractious.
In the end, city council members ultimately decided they didn’t want to sign a new contract with Vigilant because of its contract with ICE. After public comment and debate, the council refused to approve the deal.
The council decided to set aside the money but did not give it to the department. “It wasn’t approved or rejected,” he said. “I would call it a tie, with an extended rain delay.”
He says the fact that Vigilant signed a contract with ICE has created all sorts of problems. “The [Trump] administration’s policy on immigration has heightened public concern,” he said. Four years ago, when the department first asked for money to buy license readers, there were no public comments. This time the city council has asked him to look at alternatives and put his business out to bid to other license plate reader companies.
Rolleri is looking forward to the next go around with the city council on the funding and hopes to provide statistics and anecdotes that will help justify the use of the of the readers. “One of the problems with license plate readers is the low percentage of hits (1 percent) you get with this technology,” he said. It is hard to prove that you are getting a big “bang for your buck.”
He says, “it is hard to quantify prevention” if the technology prevents criminals from coming to the area, “unless our crime statistics drop significantly, we can’t provide statistics.” But he did say that providing anecdotes about arrests or preventing adverse events can help him justify the technology.
“We had a suicidal woman, who was driving up and down in her car, talking with her relatives about committing suicide,” he said. The department checked her license plate number, and one of the license plate readers had just recorded it. “We found her still alive,” he said. “It’s totally worth it based on the fact that we could save a life.”
Rolleri said that if he had to do it over again he would host a public forum outside of the city council meeting before he went to the city for funding. “It is important to let people know what your goals and intentions are with technology,” he said. “People don’t like it if they feel you are trying to slide something past them, and the place to do this is a public forum and not in front of a city council meeting.”
It is also important to vet your potential vendor. “It wouldn’t have helped us the first time around,” he said. “But now civil liberties must be taken into account.”
He also feels that collecting statistics about the technology is key to the argument for law enforcement technology. “If you have statistical success, it will help you,” the next time you get up in front of the council for more funding.
Privacy policies best practices
Privacy is an issue that haunts other law enforcement agencies across the nation. Because California is very diverse, many California cities have faced the issue of police surveillance and privacy and come out on the other side with workable ordinances and a process that has helped defuse public fears.
In 2013, the Oakland Port, armed with $10.9 million funding from the federal government to create a surveillance center called the Domain Awareness Center (DAC), asked Oakland city officials if they would like to join them and push the technology throughout the city. The DAC would be able to watch the whole city through 700 cameras dispersed across Oakland, armed with facial recognition software, automated license plate readers and 300 terabytes of storage.
According to Brian Hofer, chairman of Oakland's Privacy Commission, the city of Oakland was going to agree to become a subgrantee of the DAC and provide operating costs for the project. The agreement was put on a consent calendar, which would not go up for public discussion.
The Oakland Privacy Commission was established in 2015. “We started reviewing the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) model ordinance Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS
) in August 2016.” The privacy commission adopted a draft
in January, and it is slated to be reviewed by the Public Safety Committee soon.
Working along with the Privacy Commission is Timothy Birch, who leads Research and Planning for the Oakland Police Department. He said the Oakland Police Department welcomes the opportunity to sit with the council and add their comments to the document.
Birch echoes Rolleri’s comments about the current climate of fear that overlays all law enforcement decisions. The recent agreement between ICE and Vigilant Systems has not helped the conversation about surveillance and policing.
“When the current president speaks publicly about mass deportation,” he said, “it strikes an incredible amount of fear in the community.” He said sitting with the committee, and community members have fostered understanding of what constitutes surveillance and how the police department can still do its job in a transparent way.
The proposed ordinance includes the requirement for:
1) an annual surveillance report
2) provisions for privacy commission review of new solicitation of funding for new surveillance technologies
3) privacy council review of technology procured by federal funding or donation
4) provisions for the use of unapproved technologies during an exigent circumstance
5) enforcement of violations of the ordinance
6) whistleblower protections
governing the use of cell site simulators, also known as Stingrays.
These devices mimic cell towers, sending out signals to trick cellphones to transmit their location, helping law enforcement track a suspect’s phone. But they also gather information about nearby bystanders, according to the ACLU.
O’Malley just issued her first annual report
to the community on cell site simulator use.
The concept of privacy has quickly spread to other cities and some welcome the opportunity to talk with the community about the use of surveillance technology and what it will and won’t do.
In April 2017, the Davis City Council began working with the ACLU on a privacy ordinance. Police Chief Darren Pytel was charged with working with the group to craft a model document. He said listening to the community concerns about what the police department was doing with its technology, particularly with license plate readers, was “eye-opening.”
“They thought we had Stingray technology,” he said. “But we don’t.” If you look up how much these cell tower simulators are, they are costly, he said. His department does not have the money to buy one. “The feds are not giving these away.”
According to Pytel, citizens were also concerned that the department’s license plate reader data was being “dumped into a national database.” He said the conversation about what his department was doing with license plate readers was enlightening and helped to assuage community anxiety. “They are mounted on our parking scooters,” he said and used as “an electronic chalking system” for parking tickets.
“This conversation was interesting,” he said. “The more we disclose how we are using these technologies, we can eliminate these fears. This is a positive thing.”
He said he found working with the ACLU a positive experience. “We looked at their model ordinance, and then we modified it.”
Part of the ACLU bill would allow citizens to sue for a violation of the privacy ordinance. “We worked with the ACLU to modify this and replace it with a “right to cure” provision” — that would allow the department to fix the problem. “We tried to find a middle ground for the city, our department and the ACLU,” he said. “It worked pretty well.”
The ordinance is expected to be completed and presented to the city council in March.
Editor's note: Changes were made to differentiate between similarly named organizations.