Almanac

News - April 16, 2014

Hidden license-plate cameras captured two weeks of drive-by traffic

• Sheriff's Office used borrowed cameras to try to catch burglars.

by Dave Boyce

Radar-equipped vehicle-speed-monitoring trailers often seen along the side of the road in Portola Valley have been doing double duty recently: informing motorists of their forward velocity and taking photographs of their license plates.

The hidden license-plate cameras had been borrowed from the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), Lt. Tim Reid of the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office told the Town Council at its April 9 meeting. The cameras captured the information on all the passing license plates, but were looking specifically for a vehicle possibly linked to three residential burglaries that may have taken place on the same day in late March.

Town Manager Nick Pegueros invited Lt. Reid to speak on prevention of property crime, which is up this year. With Portola Valley not yet four months into 2014, Mr. Reid noted, the town has already experienced eight residential burglaries. There were 17 burglaries in 2013, and only four in 2012. "It's not a good start to the year," Mr. Reid said.

The license-plate cameras operated for two weeks, but the plate that deputies were looking for was not among those recorded. The captured numbers will be stored in the NCRIC database — for a year, NCRIC officials say — and will available to law enforcement agencies if the requesting agency can demonstrate their importance to an investigation, Lt. Reid said.

The cameras were running for one and a half days before the town learned of their presence, which came as a consequence of the trailers' blocking bicycle passage for a time, Lt. Reid said. The silence regarding the cameras "was not intentional," he said in an email. "I was trying to come up with ways to catch these burglars and had the cameras placed. When I thought that my actions were affecting the town, I called and notified the town manager."

Crime prevention

As for preventing residential property crime, a key step in discouraging burglars is making it hard for them to break in, Lt. Reid said. He recommended motion-sensitive lights — discouraged in Portola Valley — alarms, and letting the Sheriff's Office know when you're going to be out of town. For now, such notification must be done with a phone call, but an online notification service may be ready by the summer.

Providing deputies with contact numbers, maintaining records of serial numbers, and taking photos of possessions are also very important, he said. Photos stored on a digital card should be stored somewhere other than inside a camera at risk of being stolen, he said.

Steps like these can be helpful to quickly inform officers "what should be where. (When investigating a crime) that timely information is huge," he said.

Surveillance cameras at home are another effective tool. "We make a lot of cases off just these Costco video setups," he said.

The parking lots at Windy Hill and the Stanford Dish are the scene of occasional breaking-and-entering sprees by auto burglars; the Sheriff's Office may be placing surveillance cameras there, Lt. Reid said.

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