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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Alameda Chief on License Plate Readers: ‘I’m not Trying to Spy on Anyone’

Alameda Police Chief Paul Rolleri, above;
a version of a patrol car-mounted 
automated license plate reader, below.
ALAMEDA | PRIVACY | The often insular community of Alameda may soon have Automated License Plate Readers rapidly scanning automobiles passing through the island city. However, critics of the police department’s plan say a recently released draft policy is far too vague and leaves wide gaps for potential abuse by police on civil liberties. Others questioned the proposed usefulness of retaining information obtained from the readers for up to one year.

During a public forum on the issue Monday night in Alameda, Police Chief Paul Rolleri provided an often candid glimpse into his department’s mindset when it comes to utilizing the controversial and relatively new technology, which employs scanning devices attached to patrol cars that rapidly scan thousands of license plates on public streets. Rolleri says Automated License Plate Readers (ALPR) simply capture plate numbers without any corresponding information such as the name and address of the owner. Plate numbers are then matched against a “hot list” of vehicles that may have been recently stolen or involved in other crimes.

“I’m not trying to spy on anyone,” Rolleri said Monday night. "If we were, we wouldn't be having this discussion.” Rolleri responded to some speakers who criticized the one-and-a-half page policy for its brevity and lack of specificity, saying the proposal is merely in the draft stage. There is also a lack of case law currently available on ALPRs, he said. In addition, Rolleri expressed uncertainty over how long the department should retain data, an topic of great concern among many privacy advocates. “We’re trying to find that sweet spot,” said Rolleri. “I’ll be honest, we don’t know. We’re still trying to figure it out.” He later called the one-year proposal a good starting point that could be reevaluated in another six months.

Rolleri’s candor, though, may have, at times, alarmed privacy advocates. When responding to the concern offered by some that data collection could potential give the police department detailed pin maps and mosaics of Alamedan’s comings and goings, he maintained the data received only included license plate numbers and not other personal data. Some pressed Rolleri on whether additional personal data could simply be found with another click and keystroke. “There’s a little bit of a trust factor here. I get it,” he said. “Some people don’t trust law enforcement. I don’t know how to get past that right now, except to tell you, that’s not what our intention is.” He added, suspects don’t typically stay in one place, noting a recent arrest using ALPRs in San Leandro. “It’s just a tool for tracking people down in a more efficiently manner.”

Although Rolleri, at one point Monday, said there is in no rush to implement ALPRs in Alameda, according to City Hall sources, the department has so far been unable to attract federal grants for the project, which could include up to four ALPRs, costing around $22,000 each. There is no plan for the expenditure to be paid through the general fund, said Councilmember Lena Tam. Brian Rodrigues, a representative for the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), a fusion center located in San Francisco, said there is no additional cost to Alameda for data storage, which is absorbed by the center. “There’s no bill that ever comes from NCRIC to the city of Alameda to pay for what they’re doing,” added Rolleri.

Matt Cagle, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, says ALPRs have the ability to track the movements of ordinary Alamedans who “have often not engaged in any wrongdoing, whatsoever.” Because of the device’s ability to scan tens of thousands of license plates within Alameda’s relatively small population, Cagle estimates a single ALPR could record a resident's plates multiple times. “This technology is just wide open for misuse and even abuse,” said Cagle, who also criticized vague language in the draft policy. “What is a major incident?” he asked. “It could be a political protest. It could be your car is in the parking lot as you have chosen to attend a public forum on license plate reader technology.”

Some residents urged Rolleri to consider using the ALPRs for crimes rising to the level of felony and missing persons, and not lesser charges, such as misdemeanors. Rolleri also said he would not allow data from ALPR to be released to the public for fear of people using it, for instance, to track down a cheating spouse. David Howard, a well-known local news blogger, said repeated attempts to request personal data obtained on his vehicle by a test run of the ALPR in Alameda, was denied. Howard charged the system is paid for with taxpayers’ money and the data should be available to all. “If you can’t honor transparency, if you can’t follow the Public Records Act, it just gives ammunition to people who think you shouldn't be collecting the data at all,” said Howard. “You can’t say there’s no harm in collecting it and say there’s harm in giving it out.”

Alameda Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said the discussion on ALPRs will continue. The City Council will likely hear further details sometime in the spring, she said, before she praised its police force. “You are very well protected by this police department and they solve many of the crimes we see quickly,” Ezzy Achcraft told the audience, “and there’s a reason why we all live in Alameda, right?”

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