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California City to Install 20 License Plate Readers

Twenty automatic license plate reader cameras with the potential to scan millions of plates each year will be installed around Newark, Calif., as soon as next month, with the aim of deterring crime and solving cases.

California License Plate
(TNS) — Twenty automatic license plate reader cameras with the potential to scan millions of license plates each year will be installed around Newark as soon as next month, with the aim of deterring crime and solving more cases, according to police officials.

However, it's unclear if the mass surveillance program will actually help police meet those goals, and Councilmember Mike Bucci is taking issue with the plans, saying he is concerned about the broad reach of the technology and the lack of clarity around the policies that govern the use of the data.

In June, the Newark City Council voted 3-1 to authorize the police department to pay Flock Safety of Atlanta about $165,000 to lease 20 cameras that will be mounted around Newark, largely on roads in and out of the 14-square-mile city.

The cameras can scan up to 30,000 cars per day, according to Flock. Newark has about 50,000 residents.

Mayor Al Nagy, Vice Mayor Mike Hannon and Councilmember Maria "Sucy" Collazo supported the plan, while Bucci abstained from the vote, and Councilmember Luis Freitas was absent.

Nagy, in expressing his support for the cameras, said his wife likes to watch television dramas about policing where police often are depicted canvassing neighborhoods for security camera video after a crime.

"Cameras have become a wonderful tool for helping to solve crime," Nagy said.

Hannon also supported the cameras.

"There's a lot of citizens out there that say, 'You know what, I'm tired of crime, I'm tired of my car being stolen, I'm tired of burglaries.' Whatever we need to do to combat crime, we need to do," Hannon said.

However, Bucci questioned installing the cameras.

"I don't quite have my colleagues' enthusiasm about government surveillance," he said in response to remarks from Hannon and Nagy.

While Bucci said he was OK with private Newark homeowners associations installing similar Flock systems, and with the city previously using license plate readers at NewPark mall to try to address burglaries in the parking lot there, he's not convinced Newark needs cameras at all the city's entrances and exits.

"In general, I'm just not a huge fan of bulk data collecting just for the sake of bulk data collecting, especially on people who haven't done anything," Bucci said in an interview.

Police Capt. Jolie Macias told the council the cameras will help police solve crimes by quickly checking a vehicle's license plate, make, model and color against a national database to find out if it has been reported stolen, is associated with a missing person or is wanted as evidence in an investigation.

Macias said in the past three years in Newark, 70% of people arrested on suspicion of robbery, carjacking, burglary, stolen vehicles and catalytic converter thefts were not Newark residents.

"These cameras capturing data as they flee our city are critical," Macias told the council.

While presenting a digital slide about the cameras titled "How does the technology prevent and eliminate crime?" Macias said as more cases are solved and awareness of the cameras increases, they will "act as a deterrent for future crime."

But in an interview, Macias said she cannot "give assurances" crime would be reduced after the cameras are in use, "although I am definitely hopeful that these will be a deterrent," she said.

Newark police do not have any metrics or statistics to help determine whether the cameras are effective and successful, though Macias said it is something the department would consider.

"Of course I'm hopeful that they are going to reduce crime, but they are not only going to be put in place to reduce crime, they are put in place for other police investigations. They are for missing persons and things of that nature," she said.

Bucci said part of why he is concerned is because of nearby Fremont's experience with license plate readers.

" Fremont has had surveillance cameras for a long time, and the crime rate has gone up there over the last few years. So when I'm told that these cameras are going to lower the crime rate, I'm a little more skeptical. That sounds good in theory but in practice, that's not exactly accurate," Bucci said.

"There were some claims made in that meeting that almost guaranteed crime would go down, and I'm not a believer just yet," he said.

Bucci also asked that the contract with Flock be put off until the City Council could have a public hearing to evaluate its police department policy about license plate readers. The current policy was drafted in 2011, Macias said, and governs how long police will keep license plate reader data on file, as well as what agencies will and won't be able to see the data.

Macias said though the Flock system only keeps data from the cameras on its servers for 30 days, the current police policy allows the city to keep the data for a year.

"You're asking us to make an investment in surveillance, and then I guess I'll get to look at the policy later. And that's really kind of putting the cart before the horse," Bucci said at the meeting.

But the council majority overruled Bucci and approved the contract.

"I don't want the council, in my opinion, to be discussing and debating internal police policies," Hannon said. "That's why we hire you, Chief," he said to Police Chief Gina Anderson.

Nagy said he believes in the integrity of the police department and that police will "do the right thing" with the data.

"If you have a license plate but you're not doing anything wrong, you don't have anything to worry about. If you have a license plate and you're doing something wrong, then you should worry," Nagy said.

In an interview, Bucci challenged Nagy's comment.

"I think history has proven that is not exactly true, and it's certainly not true for a number of underrepresented communities who maybe don't necessarily agree with that statement," he said.

"I don't know why we need to store a year's worth of in-and-out-of-town data on people like the mayor, or anybody else who is not accused of anything," he said.

The cameras could go up by late August or early September, Macias said. The police department is tentatively planning to bring the license plate reader policy back to the council for review on Sept. 8, she said.

The cameras won't go live until the policy is approved, Macias said.

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