Chula Vista, Calif., Approves License Plate Readers

The Chula Vista Police Department's license plate readers are staying for at least another year, a unanimous City Council decided Tuesday during its first in-person meeting since the onset of the pandemic.

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(TNS) — The Chula Vista, Calif., Police Department's license plate readers are staying for at least another year, a unanimous City Council decided Tuesday during its first in-person meeting since the onset of the pandemic.

The council's approval greenlighted the reauthorization of the Automated License Plate Reader program for one more year. City staff was asked to investigate the feasibility of establishing an oversight group for the program.

A separate proposal by Councilman Steve Padilla to "formalize" the police department's Community Advisory Committee into a standing city commission also won full support. The commission would be the venue where audits, studies and other related ALPR information would be reported, he said.

For months, residents and activists have urged an end to the program after learning that data collected from license plate readers was accessible to agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"We should have a moratorium on this program," said Chula Vista resident Matthew Arnold. "There should be no action until we actually know everything that's being done, and there is more independent community oversight."

Mounted onto four patrol vehicles, the license plate readers take photographs of any license plate the cars drive by, collecting information such as time, date and location. The department began using the technology in 2007, a move the council approved. In December 2017 and unbeknownst to the council, the department purchased from its new vendor, Vigilant Solutions, $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 provides storage and a data-sharing feature for the hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the country that currently participate.

Despite calls from some members of the public to suspend the program until there is more independent oversight, council members focused largely on its use as a crime-fighting tool.

"Technology has the ability to be invasive, but it also is a tool and it's a necessary tool and especially a necessary tool when we know that our city is growing, that we have a lot of strain in our community, that we are down 30 police officers," said Mayor Mary Casillas Salas.

Chula Vista is seeing a rise in violent crime, which is up 21 percent this year, said Police Chief Roxana Kennedy, adding that armed robberies are up by 52 percent, aggravated assault by 21 percent and "a murder rate that is more than double our average."

"Now is not the time to take away tools that have been proven effective and are part of the reason for our public safety success," Kennedy said.

The license plate readers have helped track illegal activity, such as vehicle thefts, law enforcement officials have said. Just how much the program has helped, however, remains unknown to CVPD. Over the past three years, more than 1.1 million license plate detections have been transmitted to Vigilant Solutions, but it is unclear how many of those have led to solving crime.

"The Department does not engage in mass analytics of ALPR data and does not have any system capable of a broad comparison between ALPR data and the time, date and specific location of thousands of crimes reported each year. As a result, we are unable to evaluate how many of individually captured ALPR data were tied to a crime at the time the data were captured," read a CVPD response to public comment.

In addition to buying two more ALPR systems the council approved in July 2020, the police department will implement several changes to the program, including suspending data sharing with any federal agency. While CVPD stopped sharing data with ICE and the Border Patrol in December, the Department of Homeland Security Investigations can still search Chula Vista's ALPR data. The change will prohibit the agency from doing so, said police Capt. Eric Thunberg, adding that the police department will request a newly added feature developed by Vigilant that allows an agency to see what other agencies have viewed their data.

Another change is to have the California Department of Justice's Law Enforcement Division audit the program, a request Kennedy made for purposes of transparency. DOJ officials confirmed Tuesday the request was received but did not indicate whether the state will agree to conduct the audit.

Chula Vista's conversation on the technology comes as state lawmakers consider a bill, Senate Bill 210, that would prevent data misuse by law enforcement by requiring that information be deleted within 24 hours after an agency determines the license plate is not connected to criminal activity, as well as necessitate annual audits. CVPD's data is retained for one year, said Thunberg.

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