Alameda expands its license plate monitoring system

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ALAMEDA – Alameda plans to expand its automated license plate reader program to include all city entry and exit points.

By a 3-2 vote, City Council agreed to the increase on Tuesday, with Councilman John Knox White and Vice Mayor Malia Vella voting no. Vella said she was opposed to what she called “mass surveillance”, while Knox White noted the police chief had not argued the system would actually reduce crime.

Alameda currently has four mobile automatic license plate reader systems used in patrol vehicles. With the new fixed readers, the city will have 17 in total, at an estimated additional cost of $77,000 to $154,000 per year.

“Several police chiefs have now recommended this,” council member Trish Herrera Spencer said at the meeting. “The chef made it clear that this is one of his tools, he listed multiple ways he tries to help [the public].”

The city council approved the purchase of the mobile license plate readers in May 2014. Since then, the readers have been used to identify stolen vehicles, persons wanted for a crime and missing persons. However, according to Alameda Police Records Supervisor Rita Dharmani, the department has not tracked the effectiveness of the current vehicle license reader program.

According to data presented by Alameda Police Chief Nishant Joshi, some types of crime are up in the city, while others are down, compared to 2020. Auto thefts increased by 33 .6%, going from 470 to 628 cases, while robberies decreased by 25%. , from 112 to 84 cases. A 2017 report showed Alameda was in the midst of an overall 30-year decline in crime.

Joshi noted during his presentation that no technology exists that can promise crime reduction, but he said he believes the license plate reader is beneficial because it is one more tool than law enforcement can use to identify vehicles involved in criminal activity.

He also noted that the technology could lessen the consequences of over-surveillance, as officers wouldn’t spend their time investigating vehicles similar to the one they’re looking for. For example, rather than investigating every Silver Honda after one is stolen, they can wait for an exact match from the automated reading system.

Most residents who called the council meeting opposed the expansion of the license plate reader program. including Rebecca Jeschke.

“This is a massive collection of data on all of us, on all of our vehicles,” Jeschke said. “He gets all our information; it does not magically select criminals. This puts us all at risk because of the extraordinary harm that comes from collecting location data.

Jeschke is the chief executive of the nonprofit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, but said she was speaking as a resident of Alameda, not a representative of the organization.

To help protect privacy, only the police will be able to access data collected by readers, using a password-protected system, according to the city. Alameda Police will also verify the data annually to ensure it is being used legally.

The council approved Vella’s motion that any future program policies must be approved by the city council. One of these potential policies is how long the police department retains the video. Alameda police keep collected data for six months, but Joshi said he’s willing to reduce that to 90 days. Exceptions would be made in the case of active criminal investigations.

“I am personally opposed to mass surveillance, but if my colleagues go down this road, I would like to see this limitation in council policy,” Vella said.

A study was conducted in 2021 on the effectiveness of Piedmont’s license plate reader program, one of the first in the Bay Area, by Secure Justice, a nonprofit that campaigns against abuse. of state power.

The study found that most license plate findings did not lead to leads for criminal investigation.

“Piedmont data does not suggest that LPRs are an effective treatment to deter vehicle theft,” reads the Secure Justice report. “Despite the market value of the recovered vehicles exceeding the costs of the cameras, given the lack of evidence to support a close relationship between the cameras and the recovered vehicles, it cannot be determined that the costs of the cameras were recovered. .”

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