San Jose City Council Unanimously Approves Automatic License Plate Reader Expansion

Glass shards and merchandise were strewn along the floor of Nirvana Soul, a Black-owned coffee shop in downtown San Jose’s SoFA district, early Wednesday morning. The shop’s Instagram account informed patrons that although everyone was safe, their brews, teas and treats would be available later than usual. The post was flooded with more than 1,000 likes.

The scene is one of the latest in what has been portrayed as an increased trend of "smash-and-grab" robberies in the Bay Area. Other cities such as Concord, Walnut Creek, San Francisco, Oakland and Hayward have all experienced similar crimes in recent weeks, and both local district attorneys and Governor Gavin Newsom have vowed to crack down and prosecute those arrested for the offenses.

In an attempt to address the problem, the San Jose City Council voted unanimously Nov. 30 to spend $250,000 to expand the city’s deployment of automatic license plate readers, or ALPRs.

This technology leverages cameras to capture and store license plate numbers and locations, which can then be used to aid police investigations. The expense will be one chunk of a larger $18 million spending plan of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, a bill passed in March 2021 to stimulate recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The San Jose Police Department already uses ALPRs and, according to its duty manual, currently keeps the data for 12 months. It is unclear if this will continue to be the case. The council will be meeting during the first quarter of 2022 “to review City policies regarding the collection, use, and retention of LPR data, and to consider changes where appropriate.”

“We know that with technology, our officers are able to do more," Liccardo says. “[They’re] able to apprehend many who have been involved in these organized criminal efforts, and we want to ensure they have the resources they need.”

Noting that there was a separate pilot program of license plate readers accompanying gunshot detection technology this past year, Councilmember Maya Esparza asked San Jose Assistant Police Chief Paul Joseph to clarify how they will be deployed.

“We would be looking at crime patterns generally,” Joseph said Tuesday, indicating that the placement of the ALPRs can change over time according to need determined by SJPD. “Depending on which system we end up buying … most of them do allow for portability.”

The proposal stipulated that the data collected by the ALPRs will not be shared with federal immigration officials. However, as the Brennan Center for Justice notes, many vendors have features that share the data with other law enforcement agencies, such as ICE.

That's one of the reasons this type of technology has come under increased scrutiny by privacy advocates in recent years.

Dave Maass, director of investigations at the San Francisco-based nonprofit the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says data collected from ALPRs would ideally only be stored for three days or less. During the past legislative session, the EFF supported Senate Bill 210, which would have required records of cars not of interest to law enforcement be deleted 24 hours after being collected. (The bill has been held in committee.)

“You shouldn't sell out the privacy of everyone in your city to protect a few retail stores," Maass says. “[The technology] collects data with the assumption that everyone is under investigation or that everyone is a potential criminal."

A recent investigation by the EFF found that 1.6 million plates were scanned and stored in 2020 by SJPD. Of those, only 1,509 led to a successful match of a vehicle of interest to law enforcement—a 0.089% success rate. It's unclear how many of those hits led to arrests. The same investigation found this trend to be true across more than 80 other departments across California.

It's a ratio that Brian Hofer, chair of Oakland's Privacy Advisory Commission, says simply isn’t worth the price tag.

“It’s a statistical zero,” he says. “We might as well just stand out on the corner and yell into the wind. It’s going to have the same effectiveness.”

Hofer and Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission recently proposed a two-year moratorium on Oakland police’s use of the technology. The Oakland City Council will likely take up the motion in January. Hofer noted that the lack of detail in Liccardo's proposal is also of concern, including its price tag.

“What analysis leads you to believe that a quarter million dollars’ worth of license plate readers is going to stop a mob from going into a mall?” he says. “The price of license plate readers has dropped quite a bit recently, so they’re either getting a ridiculous number of readers, it’s a really long contract or they bought all sorts of bells and whistles with it. San Jose’s not a small city, but that's a lot of money.”

Hofer noted the average installation runs around $50,000. The town of Los Altos Hills will be shelling out $110,000 for installation and the first year of service for ALPRs in its community, while the city of Santa Clara is paying $33,000 the first year and $30,000 annually for its system of cameras.

Many Bay Area jurisdictions, including San Francisco, Oakland, Palo Alto and Santa Clara County, have laws requiring details in proposals for the adoption of any surveillance technology, including reports on where and how the technology will be deployed.

In 2015 then-Councilmember Johnny Khamis proposed attaching license plate readers to San Jose garbage trucks—an idea Liccardo also supported, albeit raising questions about civil liberties when putting cameras out in public.

But even if the Mayor has those concerns, Hofer says the type of legislation that was approved Tuesday is reactionary, at best.

"Politicians feel this pressure in this hysteria climate we live in, driven by the media that they have to do something," Hofer says. "And, unfortunately, people fall back into the old way of thinking: pour more money down the drain.”

17 Comments

  1. “only 1,509 led to a successful match of a vehicle of interest to law enforcement” … that is 1,509 crime leads which seems like a good start.
    Pro-crime groups will object…
    It is unfortunate that Liberal Pro-Crime Policies require more and more intrusive ways to stem the exploding crime rates.
    But it only takes 1 out of 1.6 million plates scanned to solve the biggest & best planned crimes and murders.

    Just like Facial Recognition software which has already caught imposters trying to use fake ID to enter the USA and rescued many children from the sex trafficking trade.
    ————————————
    “Facial Recognition At US Airports & Land Borders: How It Works and Where It’s Used”

    “….human beings generally have a success rate of around 50% when trying to match a stranger in a lineup to a photo.

    Facial recognition software, on the other hand, is claimed to be accurate 96-99% of the time.”

    “As of June 2020, nearly 300 individuals have been intercepted attempting to enter the U.S. under a fraudulent identity. Beyond violating laws against illegal entry, passport fraud fuels many other types of crime, including human trafficking and drug smuggling.”

    “Since 2015, the nonprofit group Thorn has provided a tool called Spotlight, which uses facial recognition among other technologies to help investigators find underage sex trafficking victims in online ads. Spotlight has reportedly been used in 40,000 cases in North America, helping rescue 15,000 children and identify 17,000 traffickers. “

  2. “a 0.089% success rate…We might as well just stand out on the corner and yell into the wind.”

    That’s nearly one in a thousand. The main street in my neighborhood must have thousands of vehicles per day. That means one or more hits every day, which seems somewhat successful. The privacy advocates should focus on the potential for abuse rather than cost effectiveness.

    Not sure what this has to do with the smash-and-grab scenario at the start of the story. Any commercial landlord or tenant should already be motivated to have video cameras on their property. If the thieves are using their own vehicles, presumably the cops know who they are. If not, the two times to associate those individuals with the vehicle are when it was stolen and when it was used for the getaway. The EFF report quotes a police chief who claims “reductions in stolen vehicles and thefts from vehicles and an increase in the recovery of stolen vehicles”.

  3. The .089 “success rate” isn’t accurate. The denominator should NOT be number of plates scanned – but number of license plates queried. IF they queried 15,000 plates and found 1509 plates of interest, that would be 10% success rate. If they queried 60000 plates that would still be a helpful 2.5%. The biggest concern isn’t storing of data, but who is searching for what and why. This system is ripe for abuse. Every querie should be posted to the internet, and audited by an external agency.

  4. Red herring of a title. On any given day, 99.99% of the license plates will be of no value to Law Enforcement.

    Why?

    The 99.99% are Law Abiding!

  5. Yes to license plate readers and cameras. They are useful. They also are not any kind of substitute for real policing in place of politically corrupted policing (as well as prosecution, for example).

  6. Without laws holding criminals accountable for their crimes, knowing who has committed the crime is kind of pointless. Bring back prisons and the three strikes laws we had in the 90s and after about another decade we’ll be safe from the disaster we voted to start in the last few years. The experiment failed. We do need to hold criminals in prison and prosecute crimes after all.

  7. “We know that with technology, our officers are able to do more”

    what?

    these things don’t work and the criminal-masterminds already have demonstrated a workaround for it

    this is the same old – at least we look like we are doing something even if it is dumb, doesn’t work, distracts from something that will work, etc – a recurring them here in the heaven on earth, perfectly progressive state of CA

  8. And, of course, the bad guys won’t know where the license plate readers are located.😂.

    If you want to stop the thefts, have the police come down hard on this type of crime. Use the criminals’ social media accounts to find all the participants, and then have the DAs prosecute to the fullest extent of the law — including felony conspiracy charges. And, yes, the convictions will disproportionally impact the communities of color. Why, because they are committing most of this type of crime. Or do my lying eyes deceive me?

  9. Here’s an alternate headline. Police smash & grab COVID recovery funds on the eve of knowing anything about omicron COVID variant. Also, $50k, I’ve got a $1,000 thanks giving turkey for you. If a kid steals shoes, it’s shoes, not felony shoe theft. Please explain not prosecuting robo-foreclosing on California mortgages using back dates documents? No outrage in the media for OneWest mortgage. I have to conclude media is complicit in manufacturing consent for the raid of recovery money at the expense of black and brown teenagers.

  10. Even if police interdict criminals, or identify them, as we are all reminded by the opening title of Law & Order, “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders”

    There is a current story on SJ Inside on how the DA is letting murder suspects walk free without even any bail. And while the story does not make any mention of the background of this fiasco it is because instead of representing the people, these DAs are pursuing a Marxist agenda of racial discrimination-based favoritism and declining to prosecute or hold “offenders of color” to the standards and requirements of the law and the interests of the public safety. They do this in the pursuit of a Marxist idea of “equity”, which they have applied to a racial and racist agenda of punishing disfavored groups (like whites) and rewarding favored ones (everyone else)

    So the point is, even IF the police caught every single organized criminal/looter, the DA is just going to turn them loose with no consequences, so that they continue to re-offend, ad infinitum.

  11. Technology records crime. Cops prevent crime.

    Which do you want?

    Hire some cops for God’s sake!!!!!!!

  12. let’s just keep criminals locked up after 1 strike (it was three!) instead of the current
    “catch and release policies”

  13. Keep electing Progressive DA’s and Politicians… Sweet Karma.
    CA remains the Top Joke of the USA.

    Eastridge Mall in San Jose hit by Looters yesterday (02 Dec).

    “CA has a particular problem: not only is cash bail being removed, but the state is governed by Proposition 47 of 2014, which makes retail thefts of up to $950 misdemeanors instead of felonies, meaning that few criminals are ever fully prosecuted.”

    —– 14 Looting Suspects Released on CA’s ‘Zero Bail’ Rule —–
    —— L.A. Arrests 14 for ‘Mass Looting,’ but Lets All of Them Go ——–

    Los Angeles Police chief Michel Moore on Thursday faulted California’s “zero bail” policy with returning 14 suspected “smash & grab” Looters back to the streets.

    “All the suspects taken into custody are out of custody….” some were repeat Looters.

    “… 14 suspects arrested in connection with 11 robberies between late last month that cost businesses some $338,000 in stolen merchandise and more than $40,000 in property damage.”

    “Meanwhile, LA County District Attorney George Gascón’s office vowed to hold robbers accountable ….despite DA Gascon’s support for Ending Bail ..”

    “Sean Pritchard, president of the San Jose Police Officers Association, (said) the policy is
    “an absolute assault on the safety of San Jose residents,”
    after it allowed for the release of 2 homicide suspects who police believe are connected to a Halloween murder.”

    “The (No Bail) policy also allowed a (San Jose) car-theft suspect to be arrested 13 times in 12 weeks after repeated releases, according to the outlet.”

  14. This is just one more step down the path of ours becoming a surveillance state. Liberties are eroded little by little, and the SJ City Council doesn’t see to recognize that.

    I have to disagree with Jimmer, above. The denominator definitely DOES need to be the number of plates scanned. And stored. I don’t want my moves being recorded by the government. How can I trust the government? Especially the cops? Why do they need to retain those data for an entire year? Are the cops really that slow to get around to investigating crime?

    Too bad, San Jose, this was a mistake.

  15. SCC Resident, It doesn’t matter if the denominator is 1… You Fail to ‘See the Forest For the Trees’.

    Current Liberal Progressive policies are to immediately release Criminals & Looters with little to No-Bail to go back out into the community and re-offend.

    You cannot trust Progressive DA’s and Liberal Judges and the police are more & more constrained by idiotic activists and ‘racial justice’ extremists.
    The trends show that more businesses and citizens are having to arm and protect themselves – Firearms sales have skyrocketed in the past 2 years.
    What do you carry?

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