Police roll out license plate scanner

Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
The Los Altos Police Department will begin using an Automated License Plate Recognition device later this month. The device, which scans license plates and cross-references them with a regional database, mounts underneath the light bar of a police cruiser.

The Los Altos Police Department will introduce a new license plate scanning device later this summer that officials say will assist in solving crimes.

According to Los Altos Police Chief Tuck Younis, by the end of the month, the department will begin using an Automated License Plate Recognition device (ALPR), mounted with two rear-facing and two forward-facing cameras atop a police cruiser.

The department received one ALPR as part of a Department of Homeland Security grant awarded to the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office. Thirteen law enforcement agencies in the county, including Los Altos, Mountain View and Palo Alto, received one.

The device automatically captures digital images of license plates from vehicles operating in the public right-of-way, Younis said. The scanned plates are cross-referenced through a centralized database at the Sheriff’s Office, which shares information among participating agencies on vehicles “associated with criminal activities.”

“It really does a traditional law enforcement function in a more accurate way,” Younis said of the device, mounted underneath a patrol car’s emergency light bar. “Really, the officer has no interaction with the device at all unless there’s a hit with the database.”

Reached by the Town Crier, Sgt. Kurtis Stenderup of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office said the device offers a greater level of efficiency, one that individual patrol officers couldn’t reach by manually looking up license plate information.

“It’s scary to think how many of us have driven past a car that has been stolen, simply because we can’t run the license plate fast enough,” he said.

Younis said the device offers law enforcement agencies numerous benefits in solving crimes, including its ability to relay information to officers in the field on stolen vehicles and vehicles used in crimes like child abductions, robberies and home burglaries.

He emphasized the example of a “shots being fired” call with several vehicles fleeing the scene of a shooting simultaneously as police arrive as one in which the ALPR could come into play. The device, he said, could capture the license plates of fleeing cars, allowing investigators to track down potential witnesses and participants.

“It’s a tool to assist us in the apprehension of criminals and criminal activities, and in solving crimes,” Younis said, adding that Los Altos received the device at no cost to the city because of the grant.

Privacy concerns

Younis said he “clearly understands” the privacy concerns some residents may have over the use of ALPRs and the storing of license plate information in a central database.

“As with many things we do, we realize the scrutiny we have to be under to use these types of systems. We understand that,” said Younis, who noted that the device would only be used in public areas and not on private property.

“It’s not necessarily going to go through and search your DMV records,” Stenderup said. “It searches license plates through a known database. … If you’re going to the store to buy some milk, you have nothing to worry about.”

Critics include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which in July released a report stating that the use of license plate readers “poses serious privacy and other civil liberties threats.”

According to the ACLU report, “More and more cameras, longer retention periods and widespread sharing allow law enforcement agents to assemble the individual puzzle pieces of where we have been over time into a single, high-resolution image of our lives.”

The report includes concerns such as the potential for institutional abuse of the system, as well as abusive and discriminatory tracking.

“The knowledge that one is subject to constant monitoring can chill the exercise of our cherished rights to free speech and association,” the report stated.

The report also raised concerns about varying law enforcement policies throughout the country regarding the amount of time information can be retained. For instance, the Minnesota State Patrol retains license plate information for 48 hours in all but the most extenuating circumstances. The Mesquite (Texas) Police Department, on the other hand, has an indefinite retention time policy.

In 2012, then-state Sen. Joe Simitian (now a Santa Clara County Supervisor) failed to pass a bill requiring state law enforcement agencies to delete ALPR-attained data after 60 days.

Stenderup said county police chiefs, including Younis, are slated to hammer out a local data retention policy at the Aug. 8 Santa Clara County Police Chiefs’ Association meeting that “reflects each community’s expectations.” He added that the Sheriff’s Office remains “undecided” regarding the sharing of database information with national agencies like the FBI.

“We understand privacy issues and we’re going to make a policy with that in mind,” Stenderup said. “But if people aren’t doing anything wrong, they have nothing to worry about.”

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