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.”