Panel Urges Council to Consider License Plate-Reading Cameras

Public safety cameras that can capture traditional video as well as read license plates are expected to get a look from the La Cañada Flintridge City Council at a future meeting. The city Public Safety Commission voted 3-0 on Monday to recommend the devices, known as Flock Safety cameras, which are more cost effective compared with other types.
The topic arose on Sept. 17 when the City Council asked staff members to revisit the issue of camera placement. Earlier, there had been consideration of placing cameras at the city’s main points of entry to counter residential burglaries and other crimes, according to a commission staff report.
“We obviously have looked at the issue of stationary cameras before,” said commission chair Maureen Siegel-Sprowles after the meeting. “Because the cost was $15,000 per unit, and we needed it at every entrance and exit and every lane, it was cost prohibitive to the city.
“However, it looks as if the Flock camera, which is somewhere between one-third and one-fifth of the cost of the automatic license plate readers, there may be an opportunity for us to take advantage of that new technology.” Flock Safety is a firm based in Atlanta.
Siegel-Sprowles said the camera is solar powered, its data is held on a cloud-based server for 30 days and it reads paper license plates as well as regular plates.
“There are technological advances at a lower cost,” Siegel-Sprowles said. “So our recommendation is that the city just takes a look with the advice and counsel of the Sheriff’s Department.”
One organization that does not agree with the use of license-plate reading cameras is the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
Mohammad Tajsar, an ACLU staff attorney, said on Wednesday the plate readers were “incredibly invasive surveillance technology that don’t justify the potential privacy and civil rights risks that come with them.”
He said the cameras reveal too much about ordinary residents, such as identifying people based on their location.
“They’re advanced and very granular in the sense it really enables a pretty sophisticated form of tracking,” Tajsar said. “License plate readers can capture a pretty detailed set of records across the entire community that people would be quite shocked by.”
Some of those details include not just where one lives and works but political and religious beliefs, visits to the doctor and social habits, he said.
“It’s incredibly easy to identify people based on location data that appears anonymous,” he said.
Additionally, he said the city’s low crime rate, compared with that of the rest of California, doesn’t justify the cameras.
“The big inference is La Cañada Flintridge is quite safe,” Tajsar said. “There’s not as serious of a crime problem as you might expect. I think there’s frankly more sort of concern and sort of public hysteria about crime than there really is data to support it. Not to minimize individual experiences. … I’ve been burglarized, too. It’s not fun.”
According to the city staff’s report, the Flock cameras are approximately $3,000 per unit and are Wi-Fi-enabled for real-time use of the automatic license-plate reader technology.
Staff members had met with sheriff’s officials on Oct. 21 to discuss potential advances in the available technology that offered new solutions, according to the report.
Stationary automatic license plate readers cost approximately $15,000 per unit and can help in the prevention of crimes by notifying patrol vehicles in real time when the reader has a “hit,” such as a stolen vehicle or vehicle attached to a crime, according to the staff report. The Sheriff’s Department, however, has a pricing model for contract cities such as LCF to lease a mobile license plate reader for five years as part of the agency’s contract at an annual cost of $4,675.
Previously, the two options the City Council considered were a still-shot camera that is motion-activated and takes a photo of vehicles passing under it, with the data stored locally on a memory card, and a stationary automatic plate reader, the staff report said. The still-shot camera’s limitations include its need to be manually removed so that data can be collected and the lack of real-time data, the report added. The stationary camera was not pursued because of the cost to position the cameras.
“We went through this a couple of years ago,” said Commissioner Wes Seastrom. “You need one of those for each lane of traffic coming in and out of the city. It was prohibitive at $15,000 apiece.”
Seastrom liked the idea of the Flock camera because “it sounds like a real game-changer” because of the cost and technology.
At a town hall meeting last week in LCF, Sheriff Alex Villanueva described license-plate readers as useful, but said the decision to use them had to be made by communities and their elected leaders.
“It’s an investment, but they are effective,” Villanueva said. “We have used them to solve crimes … but it’s a decision you’re going to have to make as a community.”
The cameras are expected to be discussed — with the Public Safety Commission’s recommendation — at the City Council meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 19, said the city’s staff liaison to the commission, Christina Nguyen.

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