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California City May Purchase Controversial License Plate Cams

Police in La Mesa, Calif., may soon purchase cameras that scan the license plates of cars, a system that is already employed in El Cajon that critics say is illegally sharing data across state lines.

California License Plate
(TNS) — La Mesa police may soon purchase cameras to scan the license plates of cars, a system already employed in El Cajon that critics say is illegally sharing data across state lines.

During a monthly meeting Wednesday of the La Mesa Police Oversight Board, Police Chief Ray Sweeney said the department planned to propose buying a Flock Safety license plate reader camera system during the City Council meeting on Oct. 10. If approved, the cameras would be an additional surveillance system to the vehicle-mounted license plate reader system La Mesa currently has through Vigilant Solutions.

The system, which was installed by the El Cajon Police Department in July, sends real-time crime alerts to law enforcement whenever cameras detect a stolen or known wanted vehicle from a local, state or national database.

"We have seen the many successes around San Diego County, and across the country, with the Flock system," Sweeney said via email Friday. "The advancement of technology is a huge asset for public safety, and the Flock system is one tool that can assist our officers and detectives in keeping our community safe."

According to El Cajon's tracking page, the department's 40 cameras are designed to detect licenses and vehicles, but not faces, people, gender or race. The data is retained for 30 days and can solely be used for law enforcement purposes, and it can't be used for the purpose of immigration or traffic enforcement, nor can it be sold to a third party.

But last month, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the surveillance tool also shares local data with out-of-state agencies, which some lawyers, privacy advocates and legislators say is illegal. Officials from the city of El Cajon said they disagreed, but did not share details as to why.

As of Thursday, El Cajon's cameras have detected 896,053 vehicles over the past 30 days, and of those, 3,539 vehcicles were on a state or federal watch list.

License plate reader systems are used by police in Escondido, Oceanside, Carlsbad and San Diego as well as the San Diego County Sheriff's Department. Chula Vista does not have any fixed cameras, but does have cameras mounted to patrol cars. Coronado police have installed two cameras, but Police Chief Chuck Kaye said the department is still awaiting permits for them.

During Wednesday's meeting, the oversight board also learned the findings of the second annual community opinion survey presented by Dylan Skrah, a geography doctoral student at San Diego State University.

Compared to 2022, participants in this year's survey submitted lower scores on average on a variety of questions. These included whether they believed La Mesa officers listened to and treated everyone equitably and fairly, would react appropriately to a situation, and would be held accountable for their actions if they did something wrong.

"The big takeaway here is that all the scores decreased pretty significantly," said Skrah, adding that a lower participation rate and not having a public forum during this year's survey may have had an impact on the overall score. Those who attend public forums, he said, may "have outsized more favorable opinions relative to the general population."

In addition to the scores to the list of questions, the survey also included statements from participants summarizing their thoughts on the La Mesa Police Department.

One participant, a Black man in the 55-65 age range, wrote that he was deathly afraid for his 16-year-old son, whom he said he could protect "from drugs and gangs, but not from police with the guns."

"My message to the police is please treat him as your son, and correct him, direct him and warn him and let him live to be a grown responsible man. He is not a small man, he is still a child," the man wrote.

Meanwhile another participant, a White woman in the 55-65 age range who said she had lived in La Mesa for 30 years, felt that the police had become too lenient in the years since the social justice riots in 2020.

"We live near an intersection and there is speeding and running the stop signs everyday and there is never ever any police giving tickets," she wrote. "The traffic in La Mesa is just getting worse and worse. We don't feel safe walking in our (neighborhood) because of the speeding traffic."

Skrah suggested that the department engage more with schools to increase participation ahead of next year's survey, and that more outreach be done to reach young adults, who were underrepresented among those surveyed.

Wednesday's meeting also included an update on the department from Police Chief Ray Sweeney, who stepped into the role in 2021.

Sweeney also said that the department is still working to fill four empty officer positions, but that due to a few new hires, the department has now become 22 percent female.

"That's definitely something for the community to be proud of, I'm very proud of it," he said, adding that the department is now looking to expand the locker room capacity for female officers. "A bunch of different things are being looked at, including the pregnancy policy and how to best take care of our female employees and invite them to this world that has been predominantly men for many years."

The FBI reports that as of 2019, women make up 12.8 percent of sworn law enforcement officers in the United States, but they account for 27.2 percent of all law enforcement employees.

© 2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.