Palo Alto will soon have more photos taken of auto license plates, as well as the make and model of cars around town, thanks to the City Council’s approval this week to purchase 20 new license plate readers. They can either be attached to police cars that can roam the city (one reader-equipped police SUV already does that) or they can be installed as fixed cameras in various selected spots around town, to read and record plates 24x7.
Initial plans call installation of license plate readers at Stanford Shopping Center, along California Avenue, in the downtown, and at busy intersections. Once functioning, they can capture the license plates of residents and nonresidents driving along our streets. The readers feed the information automatically into a database to cross-reference against a "hit list" of stolen and wanted vehicles. When there’s a match, police will be quickly notified.
The council hopes this will stop crimes, especially car burglaries, thefts and stealing catalytic converters.
But I’m uncomfortable about the license readers. I feel it is another method to allow the police here to track where residents and others are driving around this city, and that scares me. Why? Because while readers may (or may not) protect public safety, the process can easily lead to violations of our privacy and civic liberties. Given these times, I feel any effort to erode our rights and liberties is dangerous, investigation.
The city will sign a $174,000 three-year contract with Flock Safety for the cameras and software equipment, who will also keep the photos on file for 30 days.
Two of the council members spoke against this purchase – Vice Mayor Greer Stone and Vicki Veenker. Both said they were concerned about the Police Department's plan to have its contractor storing the license plate data and potentially sharing data with other jurisdictions.
I am concerned, too. Who can access the data – anyone? Palo Alto police and all neighboring police departments? Council members? Me?
(The city's communications officer, Meghan Horrigan-Taylor responded to me, after this column was published, that council members and community residents will not have access to the data.)
The two also expressed concerns that people of color or other marginalized people might be tracked. And the council indicated it did not want public gatherings or demonstrators to be photographed. Good.
When asked, Police Capt. James Reifschneider told the council he had no data on what percentage of crimes the cameras could solve and he said that was an impossible question to answer. I would think other nearby communities already using these cameras would have some data. He also was asked how many stolen cars in other cities were recovered by using these cameras and the captain said no data was available.
So how do police know they work? Just asking.
Reifschneider also told council that one use would be to prevent thieves from stealing catalytic converters.
As a Prius owner who has twice had thieves steal my car’s catalytic converter in the middle of the night in front my house, I should be delighted that such an instrument could stop my next catalytic theft.
But the chances of that happening are iffy.
When my two catalytic converters were stolen (a year apart), the vehicle license readers would not have worked. The first time the theft occurred around 2 am. Our dog, who sleeps in our bedroom, suddenly ran to the window and started barking. My husband saw what was happening, opened the window and yelled at them, and told me in a very loud voice to call the police. But one guy got out from under my car and a black car, parked around the corner, suddenly revved up and picked him up.
A tow truck had to take my car to the Toyota repair shop so I could purchase, at what seemed like a high price, anew catalytic converter protector.
Then this past February, the dog had to go out at 4 a.m. to pee. My husband took him out, he did his thing, then suddenly ran into the house to the front living room and started barking furiously. My husband saw what was happening again, stood on the porch in his PJs, yelled at the man and told me to call the police. Again, a car parked around the corner came and picked up the man and my catalytic converter and drove away. The police arrived but the theft was over – that safety guard I bought from Toyota was ineffective. Again, it cost a lot of money to put on a new, “improved’ protector.
I hope the city council doesn’t just automatically purchase all the items the police department wants. I wish the police had more data how this equipment is working out in other towns and how successful it is in stopping crimes. The council did ask for a police report on the scanners a year from now. I wish it was in six months.
I certainly want to stop crime in our community (and elsewhere), and I agree that the scanners in parking areas like at Stanford Shopping Center could be helpful because so many autos constantly park there.
For me, this is not just an issue about trying to prevent robberies or to track people around town. It’s also a cause of concern as to whether civil rights and our privacy will be jeopardized, which I care more and more about.