Wasco, Calif., Rethinks Approval for License Plate Readers

In January, the Wasco City Council unanimously accepted a plan to purchase automated license plate readers, but concerns about the technology and the data it would collect have led the city to reconsider the decision.

License Plate Reader
(TNS) — Cameras that scan the license plates of passing vehicles seemed like an inexpensive way to fight crime in Wasco to Mayor Alex Garcia.

The city contracts with the Kern County Sheriff's Office for public safety, having no police force of its own. But property crime and homicides have increased in recent years, and residents want their local government to do more. The $25,000 a year it would cost to deploy 10 cameras that read license plates around the city and pay a company to compile the data seemed like a good deal. It would cost eight times that amount, about $200,000 annually, to add an additional sheriff's patrol.

The Wasco City Council unanimously approved the contract for the cameras in January but it wasn't long before the pushback started.

Automated License Plate Readers, as they're known, have been hailed for their use in recovering stolen vehicles, locating wanted suspects and as an overall useful tool for law enforcement. The high-tech cameras, either affixed to a bridge or light pole or mounted to a police cruiser, can scan the plates of large volumes of passing vehicles. The cameras record the plate number, date, location and in some cases a photo of the vehicle. The vehicle's information is run against lists of vehicles of interest and added to a database where they can remain for years.

Opponents see it as an intrusive technology. As a vehicle's license plate is picked up over and over by the cameras, a trail of that vehicle's movements is created. And as an outsourced service, local governments have little control over what happens with the data collected, they say. That leaves the systems open to abuse and the potential for sharing of data with private companies or federal authorities, which may use the information to, for example, target undocumented immigrants.

Shortly after approving the deal for the cameras, Wasco received a letter from the ACLU expressing such concerns. Now plans to use the cameras are on hold.

"I hear the complaints and want to make sure we're being safe about it, and make sure we have a policy in place to protect the city and residents," Garcia said.

In a report published last year, the state auditor's office called for better controls over law enforcement's use of the systems after a number of lapses were discovered. The study reviewed use of the license plate reading systems by four police agencies — Los Angeles and Fresno police and the Marin and Sacramento County sheriff departments. However, a statewide survey found that 70 percent of law enforcement agencies operate or plan to operate the ALPR systems.

Locally, the Bakersfield Police Department uses ALPR technology. Kelsey Brackett, a BPD community relations specialist, said BPD has two mobile ALPRs, which alert officers to auto thefts and can be useful in solving crimes where there is a vehicle involved.

Wasco officials planned for the Kern County Sheriff's office to oversee its equipment. KCSO said by email it does not currently use ALPR technology.

State law requires agencies that do use it to post policies regarding the use online. A Californian search of local law enforcement agencies websites found no ALPR policies published for other cities in Kern. Delano's police department attempted to implement the technology but received pushback from the community and ultimately abandoned the effort two years ago.

State laws are in place to prevent abuse of ALPR systems, but the state auditor's report found they were not consistently enforced.

For example, state law says ALPR images collected by law enforcement agencies can only be shared with other public agencies, but three of the four agencies reviewed in the report shared their images widely and there was no evidence they checked to see who was receiving shared images. The four agencies also were found to have few safeguards in place for use of the ALPR system and didn't audit the use to determine if they were being used by unauthorized personnel or inappropriately by approved users.

"Technology gives governments the ability to accumulate volumes of information about people, raising a reasonable question: How is an individual's privacy to be preserved?" the report said.

Stephanie Padilla, an attorney with ACLU of Southern California, said ALPR systems can essentially track a person's comings and goings.

"It creates this blueprint of all the cars that pass ... this day-to-day log of activities. And law enforcement shares the data," she said.

It's also not foolproof, Padilla said, pointing to a high-profile incident last summer in Aurora, Colo., where a license plate reader alerted police to a stolen SUV. The hit resulted in police swarming at gunpoint a Black woman and four children who were in the SUV, forcing all of them to the ground. The woman and a 17-year-old were handcuffed.

It turned out the woman's SUV had the same license plate numbers as a stolen motorcycle from Montana and officers failed to check whether the SUV matched the description of the stolen vehicle.

There is also concern about U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement accessing information in the database and using it to target immigrants for deportation. The ACLU of Northern California published a report in 2019 that found through public records requests that ICE had access to the ALPR data collected by dozens of local law enforcement agencies.

It was ultimately that concern that Delano Police Chief Robert Nevarez said caused him to back off his recommendation to employ the technology in 2019.

Nevarez was familiar with ALPRs from his more than 30 years with the Fresno Police Department and he believes it is a solid tool, he said.

But when he presented it to the City Council, concerns came up about ICE gaining access to the data and he was asked to look into it.

"I went to a training session and asked very pointed questions about other agencies accessing the data. And they couldn't guarantee the info would not go to ICE," Nevarez said. "After receiving that information I went back to the council and told them I was pulling the item because it wasn't the right solution for our community."

Nevarez said 70 percent of the Delano population is Hispanic and the city is home to many immigrants. The city was also still reeling from an incident in which ICE agents chased an undocumented couple in a car, resulting in a crash that killed them and left their children orphaned.

"I was trying to build relationships and trust," he said. "Sometimes timing is everything, and that wasn't the right time."

But Garcia, Wasco's mayor, wonders if the technology might have helped solved some of the recent crime in his city.

He cited a shooting that happened in late March that left the victim brain dead.

"A car stopped, someone shot him in the head and took off," Garcia said. "If we would've had [ALPR], it might have caught that."

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