Q&A: Portola Valley leader on surveillance

Los Altos Hills City Council members’ decision to nix a proposal for installing license plate readers in town has failed to quell some residents’ interest in the technology.

As some continue to explore its capabilities, they’re looking to Bay Area communities that have already purchased automated license plate readers (ALPRs) to learn more.

Troubled by a rash of home invasion robberies and burglaries in 2016, the Portola Valley Town Council authorized the purchase of ALPRs in April of that year. Five cameras from the Livermore-based Vigilant Solutions became operational approximately a month ago. They capture still images from perches atop utility poles at two key entrances to town: on Portola Road at the Woodside border and at the intersection of Arastradero and Alpine roads. San Mateo County will install a similar system along Alpine Road in Ladera – a third byway into Portola Valley – by late spring or early summer.

Jeremy Dennis
Jeremy Dennis

The Town Crier reached out to Portola Valley Town Manager Jeremy Dennis to learn about his community’s experience with ALPRs. Following are excerpts from a telephone interview conducted last week. Dennis’ direct remarks are within quotation. Other information is summarized.

Q: How much did the system cost?

A: “The total cost associated with the hardware and the software to support it, permits, electricity poles – all of that – was about $150,000 for five cameras at two locations. … We’re a rural community, so pulling electricity to spots can be costly.”

Q: Is $150,000 a one-time expense or does the town pay Vigilant monthly maintenance fees?

A: “No, there are no significant recurring costs.”

Q: Does Portola Valley plan to add additional cameras?

A: “No. The town of Portola Valley is effectively a large cul-de-sac; there are only a couple of ways in and out. When that last location (in Ladera) is installed, 100 percent of all traffic coming in and out of town will be covered.”

Q: Vigilant stores the data in cloud storage. Who has access to it?

A: Dennis is the town’s only authorized user, but the council also granted access to law enforcement personnel from the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office and the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), an agency that amalgamates data collected from public agencies and private sources to provide investigative support.

Q: Why the NCRIC?

A: “The council decided to share data with NCRIC because it provided additional opportunities for criminal investigation. Because criminal activities aren’t solely limited to one community, that they can happen over, in this case, the Bay Area, having data available for that purpose of investigation can track a suspected participant in a crime.”

Q: How is Vigilant data accessed?

A: Authorized users may view images by entering plate numbers or a specific time frame to search, but the system requires they first record the reason for their inquiry.

“When you first input a license plate inquiry, you are prompted to log the case number and reason for your inquiry, providing an audit trail.”

Q: What is visible in the images?

A: “The camera captures a portion of the back of the car, with a subsequent focus on the license plate. No information is available about who owns the car, and you cannot see who is driving or in the car.”

Q: Are you concerned the license plates photographed may be stolen?

A: Law enforcement maintains a “hot list” of stolen vehicles and license plates. If Portola Valley’s cameras photograph a stolen plate, the system automatically notifies the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office.

Q: How long is the data stored?

A: Per a Portola Valley town ordinance, the data is permanently destroyed after a year.

Q: How would you characterize the reception from residents?

A: “Mostly positive, from what we’ve heard. There was certainly a diversity of opinion related to the cameras’ installation, but most people that we’ve heard from in a public setting were supportive.”

Q: Have you used the system yet to investigate a crime?

A: “We haven’t had a significant crime since installation that has necessitated an inquiry of the system.”

Q: Overall, are town officials pleased they went in this direction?

A: “I think the council’s very happy to have responded to a community need and put a system in place we think will provide law enforcement with a new tool to fight and solve crime here.”

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