Palo Alto's newest tool for solving crimes, license-plate readers, will soon loom over drivers as they move through downtown, Stanford Shopping Center and California Avenue or pass by prominent city intersections.
It will make note of their vehicles' license-plate numbers, which will automatically be entered into a database and cross-referenced against a "hit list" of stolen and wanted vehicles. Police officers from Palo Alto and select neighboring agencies also will be able to query the system while investigating smash-and-grabs at the mall, catalytic converter thefts in residential neighborhoods, car break-ins in commercial districts and other crimes, common and serious.
Citing its desire to curb these crimes, the City Council approved on Monday, April 3, a proposal to install about 20 automated license-plate readers throughout the city. In doing so, the council overcame some discomfort from its members about the surveillance technology, which is also being used in cities such as Menlo Park, Los Altos, Gilroy and San Jose.
The cameras won't be able to read faces of drivers or passengers, but they will capture the make and model of passing vehicles as well as their license plates. For residents like Todd Burke, who lives at Palo Alto Central, a condominium complex on California Avenue, they can't be installed soon enough.
Burke, who serves as president of the building's homeowners association, said the complex has recently experienced two major burglaries. In both cases, perpetrators used U-Haul vehicles to enter the condominium complex's two garages and break into cars. Over the past week, the complex experienced five burglaries, he said, including two in a single morning.
"We need to deter criminals from finding Palo Alto to be a nice, easy target," Burke said during Monday's hearing. "That needs to stop."
Mark Shull, a Palo Alto resident since 1983, also supported the use of license-plate readers. Until last year, he had never experienced property theft, Shull told the council. That's when thieves stole catalytic converters from two different cars in his household.
"Palo Alto has a serious and growing property theft problem," Shull said.
Council members urge caution
Not everyone, however, is thrilled about the introduction of surveillance technology. Council member Vicki Veenker and Vice Mayor Greer Stone both said they were concerned about the Police Department's plan to have its contractor store the license-plate data and potentially share data with other jurisdictions.
Stone also said he was concerned about the prospect of the cameras targeting communities of color or other marginalized populations. The council, he said, is effectively being asked to give the Police Department and its contractor, Flock Safety, a "blank check" when it comes to choosing locations for the equipment.
Police Capt. James Reifschneider, who is spearheading the implementation of the technology, assured the council that the automated license-plate recognition (ALPR) technology will not be deployed in residential neighborhoods, unless it's on a temporary basis in response to a specific crime spree in that particular area. The department, he said, will be targeting "areas where we're seeing the most amount of crimes we think these would solve."
He cited an armed robbery that occurred at a local shopping center several months ago. Investigators later determined that all three of the vehicles that were used by suspects in the incident were either stolen or were equipped with stolen license plates.
"Had we had ALPR in place, we would have detected those vehicles entering the area in all likelihood and could have responded the officers there," he said. "While I can't guarantee that it would have prevented the crime, it certainly would have put us in a better position to apprehend the suspects after it happened."
The technology isn't entirely new to Palo Alto. The city already has one automated license-plate reader affixed to a police cruiser, which can capture license-plate information as it roams around town. The new system, unlike the existing one, will use cameras in fixed locations that will function 24/7 and will be capable of capturing license-plate data at night.
As part of Palo Alto's newly adopted policy for the ALPR technology, the city will retain data for 30 days, with some exceptions for entries that are related to crimes or major investigations. It would only share the data with law enforcement agencies that provide an explicit justification for why they need the information.
For nearby agencies like the Mountain View Police Department, Palo Alto will consider memorandums of understanding that would allow data sharing. Departments with agreements will not have access to the city's data, though they would be able to request that Palo Alto run queries for them if they are seeking specific information related to an investigation.
The policy also prohibits the city from using the ALPR system to harass or intimidate individuals, to access the data for personal use or to use it to infringe upon people's First Amendment rights by, for example, positioning the cameras near public demonstrations.
The retention period was the thorniest element in the proposal, with Veenker suggesting that the 30-day duration is too long. She questioned whether it provides sufficient benefit to justify holding on to so much data about Palo Alto residents and visitors, the overwhelming majority of whom have nothing to do with criminal investigations.
Former council member Tom DuBois also made the case for a shorter retention period. The proposed period of 30 days, he wrote to the council, is "an extremely long time period to retain data to search for active crimes." He suggested a shorter duration in the range of 24 to 48 hours.
"While the proposed policy says for example that data will not be shared with federal immigration enforcement (ICE), the longer the data is retained, the more it is susceptible to unforeseen uses in the future by local, state or federal authorities," DuBois wrote. "If we do not retain it, it can't be abused."
Palo Alto resident Kat Snyder said she was opposed to the new cameras, which she suggested could potentially be used to target the vulnerable populations.
"While I understand the desire to improve public safety, expanded surveillance does not improve public safety and often leads to violations of privacy and civil liberties," Snyder wrote. "History has shown us that once personal information is collected, it can be used for purposes beyond its original intention, often to the detriment of vulnerable populations."
Plans for follow up audit
To assuage their own and residents' concerns about privacy, the council directed staff to return a year after license-plate readers are adopted to assess how they have been working and consider possible policy revisions. Council members also supported Stone's proposal to have the council's Policy and Services Committee evaluate the best way to audit how well the department is complying with the ALPR policy.
But despite skepticism from Veenker and others, the council agreed to keep the 30-day retention period, which Reifschneider said is necessary to give investigators time to gather leads in complex cases. The proposed 30-day retention period, he noted, is the shortest in the state.
"While we would love for investigative leads to come forward right away, when the crime happens, that unfortunately is not always the case. Sometimes victims come forward, witnesses come forward days or weeks or even months after the crime happens," Reifschneider said. "Sometimes we don't discover the lead that gives us the know of what to look for until weeks after the incident has happened."