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Chula Vista, Calif., Gives Immigration Officials Data Access

Chula Vista Police have allowed other agencies — including Immigration and Customs Enforcement — to access the data it collects from license plate readers as part of a previously unreported private partnership.

California License Plates
Photo by Sean Thoman on Unsplash
(TNS) — For the last three years, the Chula Vista Police Department has allowed other policing agencies — including Immigration and Customs Enforcement — to access the data it has collected from license plate readers as part of a previously unreported partnership with a private company.

Until now, Chula Vista's mayor, City Council and public were not aware of the specifics of this surveillance program. 

Chula Vista's partnership with the company, Vigilant Solutions, began in December 2017 when the police department bought $79,000 worth of surveillance equipment and an annual $10,000 subscription to the company's Law Enforcement Archival Reporting Network, or LEARN database, which includes data from agencies across the country.


Although the City Council approved the purchase of the city's first license plate readers from a separate company back in 2007, the Council did not sign off on the 2017 purchase and subscription service from Vigilant Solutions.

Because the entire system cost less than $100,000, a section in the city's municipal code allows the police department to get approval from the city manager or finance director. Therefore, the police department had no obligation to tell the City Council

In this case, the department got approval from Finance Director  David Bilby . There are no records of the current version of Chula Vista's license plate reader program having ever been discussed in a public meeting. 

This technology allows cameras, attached to four police vehicles, to constantly take photos of every license plate they drive by and log the location, time and date of each vehicle. The data does not include individual names or addresses.

Once that data is uploaded to the database run by Vigilant Solutions, the Chula Vista Police Department can choose to share it with other subscribers who also have deals with Vigilant Solutions.

According to Vigilant Solutions, its database is "the largest (license plate reader) sharing network in the United States, if not the world."

Chula Vista's data is shared with more than 800 different federal, state, regional, and local law enforcement agencies that have signed on to Vigilant Solution's database. Chula Vista can see their data as well.

Those agencies include ICE, Customs and Border Protection, California Highway Patrol, the San Diego Police Department, and the San Diego County District Attorney.

The list also includes random law enforcement agencies all over the United States like the San Juan Police Department in Texas, the Pelham Police Department in Georgia, the Orange Police Department in Connecticut, and the St. Tammany Parish Sheriffs Office in Louisiana.

Locally, the San Diego County Sheriff's DepartmentCarlsbad Police DepartmentLa Mesa Police DepartmentEscondido Police DepartmentCoronado Police Department, and the National City Police Department all have contracts with Vigilant Solutions. 

According to Capt.  Eric Thunberg  of the Chula Vista Police Department, any of the 800+ agencies on that list has access to the police department's data — specifically the image, location, date and time of each vehicle photographed. They do not have access to names or addresses of any individuals.

"If they are part of the sharing agreement, they have access," he wrote in an email.

Thunberg noted that, due to maintenance issues, only two of the four vehicles retrofitted with license plate reader cameras have been active this year. So, the amount of data that Chula Vista has made available to other agencies has been somewhat limited, he said.

California is a "sanctuary state," which generally means that it limits cooperation between local and federal law enforcement agencies when it comes to enforcing immigration law. For example, Senate Bill 54 specifically prohibits "state and law enforcement agencies, including school police and security departments, from using money or personnel to investigate, interrogate, detain, detect, or arrest persons for immigration enforcement purposes."

The Chula Vista Police Department also has policies that prevent officers from enforcing immigration laws.

For example, the police department does not ask about someone's immigration status whenever people call for help, act as a witness to a crime or is arrested. The department also "does not engage in any form of enforcement of federal immigration laws," according to the city's website, which notes that these policies are "an integral part of CVPD's community policing philosophy."

Because the data is focused on license plates, not people, Chula Vista's agreement with Vigilant Solutions does not violate these state and local laws.

This surveillance technology has been useful to the police department. Between January and November of this year, the license plate readers got 180 hits on vehicles of interest, meaning they were stolen or wanted in conjunction with a crime, Thunberg said.

In 2019, the cameras only got 55 hits. But two of the department's four cameras were down because of maintenance issues, he added.

In response to questions about its license plate reader surveillance program, Mayor  Mary Casillas Salas  said the program was being an important crime-fighting tool.

"This data is collected by nearly every city in our county, the state, and throughout the United States," Salas wrote. "The data collection is specific to the license plate on the car, not the driver or the passengers in the car at the time the license plate is read."

The mayor initially disputed claims that the Chula Vista Police Department can choose who gets access to its data through Vigilant Solutions' database.

"The City does not have its own 'sharing agreement,' nor does it have 'its own list of agencies,'" she said.

However, Vigilant Solutions' own website seems to contradict the mayor's response.

Under a section of its website titled "Whose Data Is It Anyway," the company states that local law enforcement agencies "decide with whom their data is shared (all Public Safety, or on an agency-by-agency basis)."

When told of this contradiction, the mayor issued a follow-up statement through her chief of staff,  Francisco Estrada , that acknowledges the choice to grant access to ICE.

"When we contracted with Vigilant, CVPD opted to share with every law enforcement agency," Estrada wrote. "ICE and CBP are important because crimes and criminals cross the border and while we do not share information about a person's immigration status, we do work with federal law enforcement on drug interdiction, human trafficking, stolen vehicles and other crimes."

While Mayor Salas was generally aware of the city's use of license plate reader technology, she only learned of the city's involvement with Vigilant Solutions after a reporter from The San Diego Union-Tribune asked her questions about it.

Bilby, who approves hundreds of purchase orders each year, said he vaguely remembered the license plate reader program being discussed but doesn't remember it specifically with any level of detail or accuracy.

"The departments do not pitch anything to me when deciding on a purchase," Bilby wrote in an email. "Since it is their budget, they are allowed to spend it on what they feel is necessary. I don't have a say in how they spend their funds."

Department are required to follow procurement guidelines, and his staff review the requisition and approve if the department has followed those rules, Bilby added.

License plate readers and Vigilant Solutions' use of them have come under scrutiny in the past.

In 2019, California issued a statewide audit into the use of license plate readers by local law enforcement agencies.

The audit noted that privacy advocates have raised concerns about law enforcement collecting and storing license plate reader images of individuals not suspected of crimes. The American Civil Liberties Union specifically pointed out that police officers could inappropriately monitor the movements of individuals such as ex-spouses, neighbors, or others.

Supporters of this technology say that images collected through license plate readers are collected in a public place where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.

The state audit reviewed four local law enforcement agencies — the Fresno Police DepartmentLos Angeles Police DepartmentMarin County Sheriff's Officer and the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office — and found that the overwhelming majority of images in their license plate reader databases were unrelated to criminal investigations.

For example, 400,000 out of the 320 million images that the LAPD had accumulated over several years and kept stored in its database generated a match on its "hot list," meaning the vehicle was stolen or connected to a crime. That means 99.9 percent of images on the LAPD's database were from vehicles not connected to any crime when the data was captured.

In 2019, the ACLU of Northern California published records detailing "ICE's sweeping use of a vast automated license plate reader database" run by Vigilant Solutions.

Over 9,000 ICE officers have access to Vigilant Solutions' system under a $6.1 million contract. The contract gave ICE access to over 5 billion data points of location information collected by law enforcement agencies, private businesses, insurance companies and parking lots, according to the report.

"The ACLU's grave concerns about the civil liberties risk of license plate readers take on greater urgency as this surveillance information fuels ICE's deportation machine," the ACLU wrote. "Together with time, date, and location coordinates, the information is stored for years, generating a literal and intimate roadmap of people's private lives."

Councilmembers Mike Diaz,  Stephen Padilla , and  John McCann  did not respond to a list of questions for this story.

Councilwoman  Jill Galvez  said she believes most Chula Vista residents would not be alarmed by the program.

"I am satisfied that our community will not be alarmed by the actual practices/use of the technology, which is intended to recover stolen vehicles and alert our officers of the presence of people suspected of personal or property crimes," she said.

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