In response to a rash of 20 residential burglaries in Atherton over a four-month period between November 2018 and February 2019, the City Council directed town staff to begin testing license plate readers and security cameras around town at an Oct. 2 study session.
The council asked staff to begin testing such devices, but didn't specify how many to test or where to test them, said City Manager George Rodericks in an Oct. 3 email. Staff will return to the council with testing results, along with a use and data retention policy, at a future date, he said. The town will send out alerts and update its website to let people know when and where devices will be tested.
Atherton Police Chief Steve McCulley told the council at the study session that it would be wise to start testing license plate readers and security cameras now since it's approaching what police officers call "burglary season" — the time surrounding holidays when people tend to leave their homes unoccupied to travel.
"Given the outcry (from last winter's burglaries), there is a definite appetite for this type of technology to do as much as we can (to deter crime)," he said.
Vice Mayor Rick DeGolia agreed that it makes sense to test cameras to help prepare for a potential uptick in crime.
The town will begin by testing devices such as Flock cameras, which are privately owned automatic license plate readers known as ALPRs. ALPRs are cameras mounted to police cars or on fixtures such as road signs and bridges. The Flock cameras cost $2,000 each and include maintenance costs, pole installation, software maintenance and storage replacement every three years. Rodericks said the cost of the cameras is within his signature authority, and thus does not require council approval. He said he doesn't anticipate spending more than $10,000 to test a few cameras.
The downsides of Flock cameras? They can't easily pick up images of a license plate in a significant amount of vehicle traffic, so they're best suited for low-volume-traffic neighborhoods and cul-de-sacs rather than major intersections. More expensive ALPRs, costing about $15,000 each, use small high-speed cameras to photograph about 900 plates per minute, according to a town staff report.
Town staff cautioned against purchasing ALPRs to place at all of the town's entrances and exits, given that the town's crime rates are low, according to the Oct. 2 staff report. The low crime rates would make it difficult to justify the "substantial monetary costs and the inevitable burden on staff that would surely come," staff noted. It would cost $350,000 in "equipment and infrastructure alone" to install two cameras — a license plate reader and a security camera to record footage — at each of the 10 town entrances and exits recommended by police, according to a town staff report.
"The Town might benefit from having its periphery lined with ALPR and security cameras, but there would be a significant financial burden on the Town," staff wrote. "Like any other resource, the use of ALPR is a deterrent and a resource for solving crime, but not a guarantee of success. Further, the use of ALPR does not guarantee that crime will be reduced or that perpetrators will be caught."
Staff is considering installing cameras at these town entrances and exits: El Camino Real/Valparaiso Avenue; El Camino Real/Selby Lane; Alameda de Las Pulgas/Stockbridge Avenue; Alameda de Las Pulgas/Walsh Road; Middlefield Road/Ringwood Avenue; Middlefield Road/Marsh Road; Middlefield Road/Fair Oaks Lane; Middlefield Road/Jennings Lane; Fredrick Avenue/Ringwood Avenue; and Valparaiso Avenue/Camino Por Los Arboles.
There are public safety cameras at Holbrook-Palmer Park, and new police vehicles are equipped with ALPR cameras as part of their existing dashboard cameras, Rodericks said. The police department currently has one mobile ALPR unit attached to a patrol vehicle. These units cost approximately $19,000 each, according to the staff report.
Six members of the public made comments on the agenda item, including Atherton resident Jon Venverloh, who sits on the Las Lomitas Elementary School District's school board. Venverloh would like to see cameras placed on key bicycle routes to identify motorists who drive dangerously around bikes. His recommendation comes from his own personal experience: His teenage daughter was recently hit by a car while riding her bike home from Sacred Heart Schools. The driver, who was using her cellphone while driving, left the scene without providing her information, he said.
Some local residents came to the meeting with concerns that the cameras could infringe on people's privacy. Portola Valley resident Tim Clark, a member of San Francisco Peninsula People Power, a local civil liberties organization, said at the Oct. 2 meeting that it's important there is oversight of police use of cameras and license plate readers. He suggested Atherton emulate jurisdictions that require annual reports by police on the number of times data from the cameras is used.
Council member Mike Lempres said he also has privacy concerns about the cameras, while DeGolia said it would be wise for staff to examine the automated license plate reader policy to ensure "it's as buttoned down as it should be."
In Menlo Park, police installed three mobile license plate readers and four security cameras in the Belle Haven neighborhood in a push by residents hoping to prevent gun violence, according to a presentation prepared by Atherton police for the Oct. 2 meeting. East Palo Alto doesn't have public safety cameras in town, according to the presentation.
Police are planning a community meeting with residents in November to discuss issues such as burglaries, McCulley said.