In response to a rash of residential burglaries that have plagued the town since November, Atherton staff will study the impacts of installing license plate readers and security cameras around town to "detect, solve, prevent and deter" crime. But the City Council wants to hear more from residents before making a final decision on purchasing the devices.
During a March 20 meeting, the council voted 4-0, with Elizabeth Lewis absent, to direct staff to research installing license plate readers and safety cameras around town.
The council instructed staff to work with the police department to identify safeguards to ensure that there aren't information leaks from the reader databases if the devices are installed. It also asked staff to identify security and privacy concerns and how they might be addressed, and to determine the cost of the devices and where they could be installed.
After its research, staff is expected to report back to the council during a "well-advertised" meeting.
The crime spree dates back to late 2018. There have been eight residential burglaries in Atherton so far this year and 22 since November, according to police data. About $2 million worth of goods was reported stolen in the first four incidents of 2019, police said.
"The community is concerned about the burglaries," said Vice Mayor Rick DeGolia. "In the last six months, I've gotten more emails on the burglary subject than any other."
Automatic license plate readers, known as ALPRs, are mounted on police cars or on fixtures such as road signs and bridges. The readers use small high-speed cameras to photograph about 900 plates per minute, according to a town staff report.
One police patrol car currently has a license plate reader, City Manager George Rodericks said in an email. The town is primarily focused on studying pole-mounted readers at key intersections, he said.
At the meeting, the council also discussed the positives and negatives of two alternatives: using ALPRs from a private company; or installing them through the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, or NCRIC, a program created to help public safety agencies with the collection, analysis and dissemination of information that may relate to crime. Council members discussed how a private company's ALPRs would cost less, but noted the risk that data could be lost if the company goes out of business.
The question of whether to install the readers in town was raised at a January community meeting on the residential burglary spree, Rodericks said.
Menlo Park and Portola Valley are among local jurisdictions that have installed surveillance systems that record license plate numbers. Atherton Mayor Bill Widmer said he'd like to know what privacy issues have come up in other towns that have installed the readers.
Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union are opposed to ALPRs because the information captured by them -- including the license plate number and the date, time, and location of every scan -- is sometimes pooled into regional sharing systems, according to the ACLU website. As a result, police are creating and storing enormous databases of innocent motorists' location information, and there are few restrictions to protect privacy rights, according to the ACLU.
Only one resident spoke on the topic during public comment. Christine Curry told the council that she too is concerned about the burglaries, but doesn't want residents' civil liberties violated. She said she does not want to be on surveillance when she drives in and out of town.
The ACLU obtained records this month that show local governments in California cities such as Merced and Union City are feeding their residents' personal information from license plate readers to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, even when it violates local privacy laws or sanctuary city policies. ICE has used times, dates and location coordinates from the readers to target immigrants, according to the ACLU.
License plate readers do not collect "personal identifying information," see into vehicles, use facial recognition software or share vehicle information with private sector companies, according to a police department report presented at the meeting. The readers don't transfer data to the federal government, and surveillance cameras owned and maintained by the town would capture video footage only from public areas, according to the report.
The town already has some infrastructure in place to accommodate traffic cameras and public safety cameras, Rodericks said. A private group called Atherton Fiber has been installing a new high-speed internet service in town. As part of that project, and in exchange for leasable space near the town's telecommunications tower for Atherton Fiber's hub, the town negotiated the installation of fiber wiring in all town facilities and at all major intersections for future town use, he said.