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SoCal City Considering Controversial License Plate Cameras

Police in La Mesa may soon buy cameras that scan the license plates of cars, a system that is already employed in El Cajon that critics say is illegally sharing data across state lines.

La Mesa police may soon purchase cameras to scan the license plates of cars, a system already employed in El Cajon that critics say is illegally sharing data across state lines.

During a monthly meeting Wednesday of the La Mesa Police Oversight Board, Police Chief Ray Sweeney said the department planned to propose buying a Flock Safety license plate reader camera system during the City Council meeting on Oct. 10. If approved, the cameras would be an additional surveillance system to the vehicle-mounted license plate reader system La Mesa currently has through Vigilant Solutions.

The system, which was installed by the El Cajon Police Department in July, sends real-time crime alerts to law enforcement whenever cameras detect a stolen or known wanted vehicle from a local, state or national database.

“We have seen the many successes around San Diego County, and across the country, with the Flock system,” Sweeney said via email. “The advancement of technology is a huge asset for public safety, and the Flock system is one tool that can assist our officers and detectives in keeping our community safe.”

According to El Cajon’s tracking page, the department’s 40 cameras are designed to detect licenses and vehicles, but not faces, people, gender or race. The data is retained for 30 days and can be used only for law enforcement purposes, and it can’t be used for the purpose of immigration or traffic enforcement, nor can it be sold to a third party.

Last month, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the surveillance tool also shares local data with out-of-state agencies, which some lawyers, privacy advocates and legislators say is illegal. Officials from the city of El Cajon said they disagreed but did not elaborate.

As of last week, El Cajon’s cameras have detected 896,053 vehicles over the past 30 days, and of those, 3,539 vehicles were on a state or federal watch list.

License plate reader systems are used by police in Escondido, Oceanside, Carlsbad and San Diego as well as the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. Chula Vista does not have any fixed cameras but does have cameras mounted to patrol cars. Coronado police have installed two cameras, but Police Chief Chuck Kaye said the department is still awaiting permits for them.

© 2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.