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Two Cities Moving Ahead With Automated License Plate Readers

Oakland is planning to install 300 of the devices around the city, while Chula Vista has approved the purchase of 150 of the fixed-location cameras. The goal is to curtail crime.

Two California cities are moving forward with automated license plate readers as a means of curtailing crime.

Oakland will install 300 new plate readers throughout the city, its latest effort to battle rising crime — in this case by using cutting-edge technology.

Gov. Gavin Newsom gave a $1.2 million loan to the city to purchase license plate readers after Mayor Sheng Thao requested the state’s help in addressing crime. The readers consist of cameras that record and recognize license plates and feed the information back to crime-tracking databases. The City Council approved a plan this week to use the loan to buy the cameras and contract with a software company to operate them. The data from the cameras will be used to investigate violent crimes, burglaries and grand theft.

Thao has doubled down in recent days on plans to combat crime in Oakland. Robberies have climbed by 35 percent since this time last year, carjackings by 22 percent, burglaries by 36 percent and motor vehicle thefts by 51 percent, according to city data. Police have identified a “heat map” of places in Oakland that suffer the most from violent crime, burglary and grand theft — where the cameras could be placed — but did not specify what those areas are.

The department will hold onto the footage only for 30 days to investigate crimes. The technology will not capture people’s faces — a concern of civil liberties groups.

Some jurisdictions, including the city of Alameda, have installed mobile license plate readers mounted on the top of police cars, but for now, Oakland appears to be opting only for stationary cameras.

The vote allows the city to enter into a contract with Flock Safety, a company that sells automated license plate readers, for three years. The $1.2 million loan from the state allows the city to buy the technology and Flock’s services in the first year, after which the city will pay $900,000 per year for continued service. Flock Safety said the company has technicians in the Bay Area to install the cameras as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, the city of Chula Vista in Southern California has decided to use a portion of a $3 million state grant to expand its stock of automated license plate readers by buying 150 fixed cameras, which it plans to use to curb vehicle theft. The automated license plate readers, or ALPRS, will also be bought from Flock. The money will also pay for the salary of an investigator who will oversee the ALPR program as well as the purchase of five detective vehicles, steering wheel locks and high-heat-resistant paint for catalytic converters. It will also cover contractual services with the San Diego Association of Governments to evaluate whether the technology reduces car thefts.

Chula Vista received nearly 1,000 reports of vehicle theft and 180 reports of catalytic converter theft in the last year. The state announced last month that it would invest $267 million to help dozens of local law enforcement agencies hire more police and buy surveillance tools to combat “brazen smash-and-grabs.”

ALPRs will help the police department lower the number of related crimes, Police Chief Roxana Kennedy told the City Council.

ALPR systems are used by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and police in Carlsbad, Coronado, Escondido, El Cajon and Oceanside. The 150 solar-powered cameras that will be purchased will be affixed to light and traffic poles in major thoroughfares and intersections, hot spots for related crimes and areas that are highly populated.

ALPRs work by scanning the plates of passing vehicles. Information such as when and where they were spotted is added to a searchable database that law enforcement agencies can use to find a missing person or stolen car, for example.

Privacy advocates have cautioned that the technology is unregulated and not as effective despite the significant amount of data it can collect. Between April and July, Chula Vista’s system scanned 89,313 plates. Of that figure, 51 resulted in crime alerts.

Data will be stored on the city’s cloud servers and automatically purged after 30 days. The department will also have an online portal where the public can access some of the data collected, including where crime alerts were activated.

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