How invasive -- or effective -- will Berkeley's 52 new license plate readers be?

July 27, 2023
Can a city tackle spikes in violent property crimes, auto thefts and traffic violations without violating privacy rights and increasing police enforcement stops that might be racially biased?

BERKELEY, Calif. (July 26, 2023 ) — Can a city tackle spikes in violent property crimes, auto thefts and traffic violations without violating privacy rights and increasing police enforcement stops that might be racially biased?

Berkeley officials say they can walk that line with the upcoming installation of 52 license plate readers along the city's busy streets and bustling public corridors as part of a two-year pilot program to help the city's understaffed police force investigate criminal activity.

The technology — Automatic License Plate Readers, or ALPRs — captures images of license plates, then cross-references them with law enforcement crime databases. Police are alerted when plates match descriptions of vehicles involved in active crimes or connected to missing-person reports, according to police Sgt. Joe Ledoux.

While similar readers currently are used in several Bay Area cities along freeways, bridges and many parking lots, the community was sharply divided during Tuesday's Berkeley City Council meeting. The installation cost is estimated at $250,000.

Proponents argued ALPRs will help the city's struggling police force combat an ongoing surge of violent crimes such as car jackings, thefts and robberies, often at gunpoint. There were 703 vehicles stolen in the past 180 days in Berkeley, according to police Capt. Kevin Schofield, a 43% increase. He said that's a rate of nearly four stolen cars a day and approximately $1.9 million in physical losses to Berkeley residents.

Opponents, including representatives from the ACLU, were primarily concerned about the efficacy of cameras in deterring crime, especially amid a national uptick of illegal "ghost cars" with fake or removed plates. They also raised the issue of potential negative impacts of increased surveillance, particularly within Berkeley's historically Black and Latino neighborhoods.

George Lippman, a Berkeley resident and social justice advocate, said that while the rate of stolen cars may have dipped when the ALPR technology was introduced in cities such as Vacaville, Vallejo and Fremont, those crimes rose in subsequent years to even greater highs than before the cameras' installation.

"Perhaps worst of all, you're giving false hope to those who fear for their safety and security," Lippman said, "and buying this technological equivalent of snake oil will ease their concerns."

Complicating perceptions is an outside investigation into leaked text messages that appeared to implicate officers within the police department's bike patrol squad of maintaining improper arrest quotas, racial profiling and a targeted focus on homeless people. The investigation found no conclusive evidence to validate those allegations.

Nathan Mizell, the former vice chair of the Berkeley Police Accountability Board and one of the first public figures to speak out about the texts, scoffed at the investigation's timing and lack of transparency.

"We have a racism problem in the Berkeley Police Department — there is no question," Mizell said. "I think we have to look at those issues before handing the department mass surveillance technology with poor data."

The Berkeley City Council ultimately approved the pilot project in a 6-1-1 vote after more than 2.5 hours of discussion. Councilmember Ben Bartlett voted no, Councilmember Sophie Hahn abstained, and Councilmember Kate Harrison was absent.

The planned locations of the 52 cameras have not been disclosed, but the devices will be procured from Flock, a third-party vendor that stores information about plate-hit data within accessible transparency portals.

The initial purchase and installation of the ALPRs is estimated to cost $250,000, with a yearly subscription fee of up to $175,000 — funded by a Nov. 2021 budget referral.

Currently, the Berkeley Police Department only uses ALPRs within its Parking Enforcement Bureau, replacing the need to physically "chalk" tires to track timed parking zones and combat scofflaw motorists.

While parking enforcement records are retained for just 14 days, the proposed 30-day retention period for the newly approved ALPRs is intended to give officers sufficient time to work through extensive case loads of complaints and investigate crime reports — compared to preserving a trail of breadcrumbs.

But dozens of residents questioned the lack of empirical data justifying the use and reliability of the tech, as well as confusing policy language regarding approved uses.

In a four-page letter, John "Chip" Moore, chair of the city's Police Accountability Board, was unsure that the ALPRs could potentially record plates without probable cause, store data for longer than the proposed 30-day schedule and register "false flags" for at least one out of every 10 vehicles.

Additionally, Schofield said the readers only capture alphanumeric details on a license plate, which the system connects to the main color and style of the vehicle. He said the cameras would only capture a person's likeness if they happen to be in the vicinity of the roadway when the images are taken.

After the two-year pilot ends, the city will review collected metrics to review the program's effectiveness.

Resident Todd Andrew expressed support for the new license plate readers, saying the ALPR policy only condones capturing images of vehicle data, not faces of community members.

"There are errors, but there are errors in any effort that we make to do anything," Andrew said. "This is just one arrow in the quiver of crime fighting."

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