With a policy governing the use of automated license plate readers by the police department now in place, the Menlo Park City Council may move on to regulating the use of such technology by private companies.
From Oct. 1, 2014, through Jan. 1, 2015, the police department's three mobile automated license plate readers captured 172,001 plates, according to a quarterly report presented at the Feb. 24 council meeting.
Of the 124 plates that were tagged by the system as belonging to wanted vehicles, the "vast majority" were false hits -- the officer running the reader compared the computer's image to the actual plate and found a mismatch. But four led to the recovery of unoccupied stolen vehicles, the police department said.
The Menlo Park Police Department also queried the license plate database nine times for investigative purposes during those three months, according to the report.
Council members noted during the report's presentation that the readers are working as planned. But Councilman Ray Mueller wants to know whether anything should be done about license plate readers operated by private parties, who collect data to use for marketing or to sell to background check services, for example.
He suggested first determining how many private operators are running license plate readers within Menlo Park, and then creating a registration or permit program so that the city -- and police department -- know who else is collecting the data.
"If we're going to regulate the police department and we know private companies are doing this, we should look into it," Mr. Mueller said.
His council colleagues wondered how widespread the issue is.
"Many, many, many private entities collect license plate information," Cmdr. Dave Bertini told them. He said that private operators don't have the capacity to determine who a license plate number is registered to, but the data can be used by someone who already knows the identity of a particular plate's owner.
Mayor Cat Carlton said she was "a little blown away" by the idea of private companies deploying the license plate readers, but not quite enough to leap onboard the idea of a registration program.
Like council members Rich Cline and Kirsten Keith, she was reluctant to spend a lot of time and money to get a program going, only to find that there may not be any such private operators in Menlo Park. They also suggested this may be a problem to tackle at the state level, perhaps through Assemblyman Rich Gordon.
Mr. Mueller said the state has been trying for years without success to regulate it, so he was interested in looking at it from a city standpoint.
City Manager Alex McIntyre said he needed to talk to the city attorney to delineate a possible legal framework for monitoring private license plate reader operators, and whether the issue belonged at a local, or at a broader, level.