Police cars to get license-plate readers in Alameda, Calif.

City council approves spending to equip 4 patrol cars with cameras


May 29--ALAMEDA -- Alameda police cars will use automated license-plate readers now that the City Council has approved funding the equipment, despite critics saying it can undermine people's privacy.

The council unanimously approved spending up to $80,000 to equip four patrol cars with three cameras each, allowing them to register hundreds of license plates per minute on moving and parked vehicles. The collected information will include a photo of each plate, GPS coordinates and the date and time the image was captured.

"We drive down public streets, roads and highways all the time, and our license-plate numbers are not protected information," Vice Mayor Marilyn Izzy Ashcraft said before the May 20 vote. "There is no expectation of privacy, I would argue."

Data collected by the license-plate readers will be stored for six months and then purged, unless investigators are using it or think they might need it for a case. Police will prioritize using the cars equipped with the technology in neighborhoods where investigators have noticed an increase in stolen vehicles and other vehicle-related crime, police Chief Paul Rolleri said.

The council's decision follows it giving police the OK to seek funding for the equipment in October last year, and a February forum at the Alameda Main Library during which police gathered public input on the issue.

Piedmont, San Leandro and Tiburon police are among Bay Area agencies already using the technology. The length of time police agencies retain the data varies. The Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, which helps local, state and federal law enforcement collect and analyze information on possible criminal threats, recommends it be kept for a year.

"It's my hope that at some point we will get legislative direction on attaching a number to that so you will see a uniform retention policy across the state," Rolleri told the council. "But until that happens I'm comfortable now reducing that recommendation from one year to six months."

Alameda police field-tested the equipment on a single patrol car last year, when it scanned about 97,000 plates within two weeks and scored about 85 "hits" on suspicious vehicles, police said.

The plates scanned were within about 50 feet of the patrol car, and the hits included vehicles stolen in San Mateo and San Diego. While the amount of violent crime is relatively low in Alameda, Rolleri said, residents still experience burglaries, vehicle thefts and vehicle break-ins.

"People who do commit crimes often pass through our town on their way from Point A to Point B," Rolleri said. "It would be nice to have hits on their vehicles."

He also said the equipment will enable Alameda police to help other law enforcement agencies as they search for a suspect or vehicle. Privacy advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, note that the patrol cars scan the license plates of law-abiding citizens and that unless safeguards are in place the collected data can be abused.

Alameda police plan to have regular audits and officers will use a password-protected system so that those who have access to the information can be traced.

"This is a tool that's not going to be operating on autopilot," Councilman Tony Daysog said.

Daysog said he wants police to have the tools to fight crime, and that supporting license-plate readers allows him to fulfill a commitment he made to residents who voiced concern about the issue.

Alameda police applied for a federal Department of Homeland Security grant to pay for the equipment but were turned down. As a result, money that was earmarked in the 2013-14 budget to fill vacant positions that remain open will be used for the purchase.

Alameda police will get the devices from Vigilant Solutions, a Livermore-based company that has provided similar technology to the military, the California Highway Patrol, the Colorado State Patrol and other law enforcement agencies.

Reach Peter Hegarty at 510-748-1654 or follow him on Twitter.com/Peter_Hegarty.

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