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Calistoga, Calif., to Deploy Automated License Plate Readers

In an effort to improve Calistoga's policing, six automated license plate reader cameras will soon be installed at the entry points of the city, making Calistoga the first Napa County city to directly lease the devices.

License Plate Reader
(TNS) — In an effort to improve Calistoga's policing, six Automated License Plate Reader cameras will soon be installed at the entry points of the city, making Calistoga the first Napa County city to directly lease the devices.

The ALPRs — which photograph the license plate numbers and vehicles that pass by and upload the images to a database — are set to be installed as the result of a 4-1 Calistoga City Council approval of a Calistoga Police Department request Tuesday night.

The city will lease the six cameras from Flock Safety for $2,500 each over two years; the total cost of the camera system adds up to roughly $39,100.

Police Chief Mitch Celaya said he believes ALPRs are already being used by Napa County, the city of Napa and American Canyon, and that more cameras are likely coming. ALPRs have been deployed heavily in areas near Napa County, including Vallejo, Fairfield and Lake County.

"I was speaking to the St. Helena police chief, he's putting a proposal forward to use LPR cameras in his city," Celaya said at the meeting. "I know Napa County and the Napa Police Department are looking at employing more cameras. Some of them are going to be fixed cameras and some of them are going to be mobile cameras. They'll use these mobile cameras in problem areas that they determine, and they'll be moving them around the county or within their city."

That would represent a stark change from 2019, when all of Napa's law enforcement agencies — except the Napa Police Department — told the California State Auditor's Office in a survey that they didn't use ALPR data or operate cameras. NPD said in their survey response that they accessed ALPR information, but didn't operate cameras.

Law enforcement agencies have long touted ALPRs as a powerful and useful tool. But privacy advocates, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have criticized the technology for gathering a huge amount of sensitive information about people that have no connection to crime. Advocates have also criticized law enforcement agencies for unclear data sharing arrangements with other agencies.

The 2019 state auditor survey was part of a 2020 report that found ALPRs were used in at least 230 police and sheriff's departments and investigated departments in four jurisdictions — Los Angeles, Fresno, Marin and Sacramento. Those agencies didn't consistently follow California's ALPR law that requires them to administer the ALPR programs in ways that respect individual privacy and protect the data, according to the report.

"We found that the agencies have risked individuals' privacy by not making informed decisions about sharing ALPR images with other entities, by not considering how they are using ALPR data when determining how long to keep it, by following poor practices for granting their staff access to the ALPR systems, and by failing to audit system use," the report says.

The Marin County Sheriff's Office recently settled a lawsuit over ALPR data sharing that alleged the office was violating state law by sharing data with federal agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in violation of California law, according to a report from the Marin Independent Journal. The sheriff's office essentially agreed to follow the law as one part of the settlement, the report says.

Chris Pacheco, an NPD lieutenant, said in an email the Napa department currently doesn't own ALPRs, and there aren't any city-owned ALPRs deployed on Napa's streets. But the city has access to ALPR data from other cities, data from privately owned ALPRs and data from ALPRs installed in the city by the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC) — one of 80 "fusion centers" largely created after the Sept. 11 attacks to combat terrorist and criminal activity through information sharing.

"During criminal investigations, NPD has utilized ALPRs owned privately, by NCRIC and other law enforcement agencies which have aided in the successful apprehensions and prosecutions in serious crimes," Pacheco said in an email. "We are continuing to review and research the practice of utilizing ALPRs in law enforcement in an effort to stay innovative while balancing public safety and privacy rights."

The city of Napa's Community Development Department does also have two parking enforcement vehicles equipped with ALPRs that record license and location data to help figure out whether cars have been parked for too long. That data is all owned by the city, said parking manager Tony Valadez, which means other agencies need city permission to access it. The readers also aren't used by the police department," Valadez said.

American Canyon Police Chief Rick Greenberg said the department — the city contracts for police services through Napa County Sheriff's office — doesn't own any ALPRs, but it currently has a few ALPRs on loan through a law enforcement equipment sharing agreement. The department also makes use of data from ALPRs in surrounding areas, including Vallejo and the city of Napa. Greenberg added that the American Canyon Chamber of Commerce recently purchased some ALPRs, but they haven't been installed yet.

"We are in the process of looking at getting some, but we don't own any currently," Greenburg said.

In a Monday phone call, Napa County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Henry Wofford said he couldn't immediately confirm or deny whether the department uses or owns ALPRs. Wofford didn't respond to multiple follow-up requests for information.

St. Helena police Chief Chris Hartley confirmed Wednesday that the department doesn't currently own or operate a license plate reader system. But the department has been in contact with an ALPR vendor and recently received a quote on the cost of such a system, Hartley said in an email. As such, the department is preparing a proposal for the St. Helena City Council to add the systems, which Hartley said will likely go before the council in September.

And Jaret Paulson, spokesperson for the California Highway Patrol Napa bureau, said the CHP doesn't currently have any ALPRs in Napa County, though they have had ALPR systems attached to CHP vehicles in the past.

At the Calistoga council meeting, Celaya said the Calistoga Police Department's main mission is to protect the safety and security of the community. He noted Calistoga is "a very safe community," but that the crime that happens tends to involve vehicles. As an example of crimes the ALPRs could potentially help with, he brought up catalytic converter thefts, burglaries and a suspicious vehicle that was following a young child early last year.

"What typically happens is, whether it's an in-progress theft, any kind of crime, suspicious vehicle, and domestic violence, there's typically a vehicle involved," Celaya said at the meeting. "People are coming from the outside to the city of Calistoga to commit crimes."

Furthermore, he said, the department typically has two officers patrolling the city. And even though the city is 2.6 square miles large, those two officers can't be everywhere at once. Celaya added that the Calistoga community is good at reporting crimes, but officers who take those reports usually only end up with partial descriptions that they can't follow up on.

Calistoga Councilmember Lisa Gift cast the sole vote against the item. She also pulled it from the consent calendar, where it would have been voted on by the council without discussion.

Gift said at the meeting that she had some reservations about the system, and felt there needed to be more of an opportunity for the public to weigh in.

Celaya was joined at the meeting by Flock Safety senior customer success manager Hector Soliman-Valdez, who Celaya said helped prepare the staff report.

Celaya noted that the cameras don't have a facial recognition component. Data from the cameras — in compliance with state law — will also not be shared with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and will be automatically deleted after 30 days if not collected as evidence, he said. Furthermore, Soliman-Valdez said, the ALPR system includes an audit system that allows administrators to ensure searches are used for valid purposes.

"Having cameras strategically located around town will allow us to hopefully identify some of these vehicles and actually start to take some actual action as opposed to just taking a cold report," Celaya said at the meeting. "Which totally frustrates our community because they're making a report and that's all they're getting. They can use it for insurance purposes but they're not getting their property back. So looking at the Flock camera system we believe is the means to help us be basically a staff multiplier, so to speak, in which we'll have eyes and ears around town."

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