Apr 8 2013

License Plate Readers Recommended by Public Safety Committee

Is there evidence that License Plate Readers lower crime rates? Police Chief says, “No.”

The Piedmont Public Safety Committee met on Thursday, April 4, in the Council chambers with an unusually large audience who were primarily interested in the proposal to purchase License Plate Readers (LPR) for Piedmont egress/ingress points.  First, the new Committee member, Dana Sack, was introduced and Committee member Lyman Shaffer reported  there have been 13 Neighborhood Watch meetings in 2013, with 9 more scheduled.

The remainder of the meeting was devoted to the consideration of the proposed LPR system purchase, with no time for the remaining agenda items which were put off until the Committee’s May 2 meeting.   Following presentation of a video (see related article) and explanation of the project, Committee Chair Michael Gardner mentioned that three letters concerning the LPR proposal had been received from residents.

A letter from Kathleen Quenneville asked, “How would the technology help prevent crime in Piedmont?”  This question was asked in several variations by residents at the meeting, such as, “Can the funds be spent better to reduce crime?” with specific mention of patrols.  Pointing out that there have been no home invasions in Piedmont since January 21, 2013,  Police Chief Rikki Goede noted that the LPR system would not have made a difference in the home invasions because the cars used were not yet listed as stolen vehicles.

Piedmont has had one mobile LPR unit for a few years.  Data on its effectiveness was not part of the presentation. When Goede recently shepherded Piedmont through the process of joining (with a Memorandum of Understanding) the Northern California Regional Information Center (NCRIC), it took five days to download all the BOLOS (Be On the Look Out).  Since joining, Piedmont receives the NCRIC LPR data from participating northern California communities.

Pressed by Committee member Gregory Young to provide evidence that LPRs reduce crime, Goede, responded, “There will never be data that I can give you to say LPRs will reduce crime.” Young mentioned citizens expressing skepticism about how /whether LPRs will reduce Piedmont crime. “People want to reduce crime, not increase arrests for stolen vehicles.”  He also asked if the 3M LPRs will pick up motorcycle plates.  Goede responded, “in most cases” and mentioned that the cameras respond to reflective plates.*

Citizen Uncomfortable with the LPRs Invasion of Privacy While Other Citizens Want it Now

Mark Herrick and Steve Senter, speaking as residents of “Baja Piedmont,” were eager to have LPRs installed at every entry into their neighborhood.  Senter objected to LPR installations at less than 24 Piedmont entry points, and said, “Installing 12-14 you are just diverting the criminals to another ingress.”  Goede assured him that his neighborhood would get most of the LPRs.  Senter was referring to the Police Chief’s Option Three which would install LPRs “… at major points of ingress/egress as well as ingress/egress points in higher crime areas…” and add additional mobile LPRs units.

The March 18, 2013, Police Chief report, “Update to Council and Community on License Plate Readers” described this option as, “More cost effective for the city;” Later, Senter urged that the LPR program be reviewed and revisited at the end of six months to find out its impact.  Committee Chair Michael Gardner agreed adding,  “Yes, and we would want to know whether mobile or fixed units are more effective.” Herrick told the Committee that his neighbors in the Lower Piedmont Neighborhood Watch Network are eager to have the LPRs installed as soon as possible.

A 3M company representative at the meeting said the hardware could be produced in their Knoxville, Tennessee factory and delivered to Piedmont within 6-8 weeks.  A Ray’s Electric representative said his company had submitted a bid for the installation of the LPR system.  Other contractors’ bids are expected.  Additional expenses are the monthly PG & E and Verizon charges (each camera contains a modem that feeds the photos).

Privacy Issues

Although the recent CBS news report on Piedmont’s LPR project indicated a local lack of concern about privacy, Piedmont resident Rick Schiller told the Committee at the meeting “I am uncomfortable with the loss of privacy.”  Committee Chair Gardner assured him that there were many far more invasive aspects to our contemporary life, noting that every time you enter a store such as Safeway you are recorded on camera, and the Golden Gate Bridge has LPRs recording every car that passes as part of their new elimination of toll takers.

The license plates and car photos are uploaded to the Northern California Regional Information Center (NCRIC) in San Francisco where they are stored for a year.  California has no law governing the use or retention of LPR data.  Thus far, only two states, Maine and New Hampshire, have laws restricting or limiting ALPR (Automatic License Plate Readers) and ALPR data usage for cars that do not trigger alerts.

The web interface allows data to be shared across multiple locations and agencies.  Police and other users can retrieve photo files using multiple parameters including time, date, full or partial plate, location and user or  map all locations for a single license plate to track vehicle movements.

ACLU Privacy Concerns

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also has concerns about LPRs.  “The biggest problem with ALPR systems is the creation of databases with location information on every motorist who encounters the system, not just those whom the government suspects of criminal activity. Police departments nationwide are using ALPR to quietly accumulate millions of plate records, storing them in backend databases. While we don’t know the full extent of this problem, we know that responsible deletion of data is the exception, not the norm. …  As license plate location data accumulates, the system ceases to be simply a mechanism enabling efficient police work and becomes a warrantless tracking tool, enabling retroactive surveillance of millions of people.”

The ACLU quotes Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito on police attaching a GPS device to a criminal’s car: “Society’s expectation has been that law enforcement agents and others would not—and indeed, in the main, simply could not—secretly monitor and catalog every single movement of an individual’s car for a very long period.”  The ACLU cautions that the “ALPR systems pose the same risk, except they involve tracking all of us rather than specifically targeted individuals.”

Speaking as a citizen, not a City Council member, Margaret Fujioka said, “LPRs will provide a great deterrent.” She also noted the benefit to Oakland. Geode echoed this point, noting that Oakland has “lots of mobile LPRs but no fixed LPRs.”

Concluding the meeting, Gardner asked each committee member to make a recommendation as requested bythe City Council.  Committee members supported Option 3, the installation of fixed LPRs at 10 – 12 sites plus several new mobile LPRs.  Fire Captain Scott Barringer said he couldn’t make a recommendation without knowing the cost.

The City Council will consider the proposed LPR system purchase at its May 6 meeting. Comments to the City Council may be emailed via the City Clerk John Tulloch at  jtulloch@ci.piedmont.ca.us

* Issues not yet covered include the 3M cameras’ capability to read in heavy weather such as a downpour rain or fog, ability to read non-reflective license plates (whether inherently or altered by driver) and the ability to read during transitional light periods.

Leave a Comment