Clickability tracking pixel

California City Changes Course on License Plate Data Sharing

Chula Vista, Calif., has stopped — for now, at least — allowing federal Border Patrol agents and other immigration agents to look at data that police collect from electronic license plate readers.

by Teri Figueroa, The San Diego Union-Tribune / December 14, 2020
Shutterstock

(TNS) — Chula Vista, Calif., has stopped — for now, at least — allowing federal Border Patrol and immigration agents to look at data that police collect from electronic license plate readers.

"I want to make it clear to the public that that data sharing has stopped," Mayor  Mary Salas  said at a City Council meeting Tuesday.

The South County city has temporarily blocked federal agencies with an immigration enforcement component from looking at the data until the City Council learns more about the data-sharing program. That report to the council is likely to happen in January.

Those agencies include Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, which includes Border Patrol.

On Friday, Salas issued a statement that the city "recognizes the concerns recently raised" about sharing data with immigration officials. "Chief (Roxana)  Kennedy  and I are in agreement that a comprehensive review of the program is necessary," she said.

For three years, Chula Vista has been a part of a database that allowed hundreds of agencies to look at each other's license-plate reader data. The database is run by Vigilant Solutions, the private company that supplies cameras to read license plates and stores the collected information.

The decision to suspend data access for immigration enforcement agencies came just days after The San Diego Union-Tribune reported on the existence of the data-sharing agreement. Until recently, neither the City Council nor the mayor knew of the program.

The revelation that immigration officers could look at local license plate data brought quick criticism. Activist and Chula Vista resident  Pedro Rios , director of the American Friends Service Committee San Diego, tweeted that the program "infringes on civil liberties & has potential of being an extension of immigration enforcement."

On Monday, incoming City Council member  Andrea Cardenas  issued a statement calling for an end to the data collection, noting "systemic inequities" and a "long history of institutional racism" that created mistrust between communities of color and policing agencies.

California is a "sanctuary state," which limits cooperation between local and federal agencies in immigration matters. State law prohibits state and local agencies from investigating or arresting people for immigration reasons. In addition, Chula Vista police policy prevents its officers from enforcing immigration laws.

Here, the data in question is focused on license plates, not people, so the sharing agreement does not violate state law.

Chula Vista police have used license plate readers for several years. The City Council approved their use in 2007. But in 2017, the department bought new hardware from Vigilant Solutions. Police also signed on for a subscription service through the company, which gave them access to a database to see and share data with hundreds of policing agencies.

Chula Vista can outfit up to four police vehicles with the readers, which take photos of every license plate they encounter, then log the location, time and date.

Once that information is uploaded to the database run by Vigilant Solutions, the department can choose to share it with other Vigilant Solutions' subscribers. Chula Vista shares with and has access to data from more than 800 agencies across the country.

Salas has noted "the value to this technology" for solving crimes and finding fugitives. When she announced the decision to block access during Tuesday's council meeting, she spoke of the need to ensure privacy.

Such technologies, Salas added at the council meeting, "really serve as a deterrent to crime. But there has to be the right balance, and we have to have the community's trust and confidence and they need to know the facts regarding this."

Chula Vista is not the only local city grappling with governance of surveillance technologies. San Diego is crafting an ordinance to establish overarching rules for all surveillance in the city, from license plate readers to overhead streetlight cameras and beyond.

San Diego's move to codify rules follows months of pushback from people appalled to learn that the city had installed cameras in more than 3,000 street lights, and that police were allowed to access the footage. That access is also on pause until the city passes a surveillance ordinance.

(c)2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


Never miss a story with the daily Govtech Today Newsletter.

Subscribe


E.REPUBLIC Platforms & Programs