Alameda, Calif., Reconsiders Value of License Plate Readers

Privacy concerns halted plans to install license plate readers back in Feb. 2018, but now, city officials are thinking about installing the devices at key intersections pending a report from staff.

by Peter Hegarty, East Bay Times / January 9, 2020
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(TNS) — City officials are willing to take a look at installing cameras that can read vehicle license plates at key intersections, though no exact locations have been designated.

“I think that’s what the residents want us to do — to make the island safe for people of all ages,” City Councilman Tony Daysog said Tuesday, when the council unanimously decided to ask city staff to come back with a report about the cameras.

The city initially considered installing the cameras in February 2018.

But it held off moving forward until a city policy was in place to protect people’s privacy by placing restrictions on who has access to any personal information that the city has collected, an action the council took last month, when it also banned the use of face recognition technology.

On Tuesday, Councilman Jim Oddie said he was concerned that the license plate readers could undermine people’s privacy, and that the data collected could be misused.

Police officers, Oddie said, may detain someone based just on their race or because their vehicle matched one reportedly involved in a crime.

“That potential for racial profiling is concerning for me,” Oddie said.

But Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said people should know that they can be under greater scrutiny in public.

“There’s no expectation of privacy driving down a street or highway in your car,” Ashcraft said, adding: “I think we owe it to our police department and to our citizens to make these tools available.”

The council wants city staff to come back with a report on the effectiveness of the cameras in reducing auto theft and on recovering stolen cars, as well as the impact the devices might have on reducing property crime.

The council also wants to hear about error rates and the misidentification of vehicles.

In February 2018, the council considered a proposal to install 13 cameras at various locations near Alameda entry and exit points, including at Doolittle Drive and Ron Cowan and Harbor Bay parkways.

The effort to have the surveillance devices at key locations follows Alameda police being allowed in May 2014 to equip four cruisers with similar cameras, which register hundreds of license plates per minute on moving and parked vehicles.

The collected information includes a photo of each plate, GPS coordinates and the date and time the image was captured. The data is stored for six months and then purged, unless investigators are using it or think they might need it for a case, according to Alameda police policy.

The data is also shared with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, which coordinates information among first responders and other agencies.

Vice Mayor John Knox White, who put the cameras on Tuesday’s agenda, said he wanted to “take the temperature” of the council about developing a program for their use.

©2020 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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