Santa Cruz Police move forward with license plate readers despite ACLU’s concerns
As opposition from local activists remains strong, city officials are moving forward with plans to install Automated License Plate Readers (ALPR) for the Santa Cruz Police Department.
These controversial surveillance cameras, which supporters hope will help solve crimes, photograph all license plates as cars drive past. They record time, date and GPS location, often with a second camera that photographs the entire car. GT has learned, through public records obtained from SCPD, that local police are making preliminary decisions about ALPR, including camera placement, types of cameras, and data storage.
It’s the data storage that gets to the heart of many activists’ concerns.
SCPD plans to keep the data in San Francisco’s Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), a fusion center with the Department of Homeland Security. Fusion centers were created as anti-terrorism tools in the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and they share information with other agencies.
But using fusion intelligence centers are exactly what local leaders at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) want the city to avoid.
Santa Cruz’s ACLU came out this summer in opposition against any plans to use ALPRs—especially if the data is stored at a fusion intelligence center—and clarified their position in a recent opinion editorial for the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
The Santa Cruz ACLU first learned that police were planning on storing ALPR data at the NCRIC when members met with the SCPD last June. That was a disappointment to those in the meeting, says ACLU board member Mike Rotkin.
“Despite being impressed that the Santa Cruz police did take [the ACLU’s] concerns seriously, they explained that they couldn’t control the data, which was our major concern in the first place,” says Rotkin, a former Santa Cruz mayor. “The data could go out to a much wider world and be used for all kinds of inappropriate purposes.”
A 2007 report titled “What’s Wrong With Fusion Centers” says fusion centers were “originally created to improve the sharing of anti-terrorism intelligence among different states.” But it added, “The scope of their mission has quickly expanded—with the support and encouragement of the federal government—to cover ‘all crimes and all hazards.’”
Councilmember Micah Posner says he hears the ACLU’s concerns about the data fusion center and wants to take them into account. “If the ACLU thinks we shouldn’t buy the readers, I take that really seriously,” Posner says.
Posner says once the police finish their research and develop protocols for ALPRs, the city manager’s office will forward them to the council, who can share them with the public. “If there’s still a desire not to buy the readers, or a lot of dissent about the plan from the public or ACLU, then I’ll put it on the agenda for a full discussion,” Posner says.
According to city spokesperson Keith Sterling, though, another public meeting doesn’t necessarily need to happen, because a hearing has already been held.
Sterling, who works for the city manager’s office, says the September 2013 meeting where the council approved funding was an opportunity for community discussion. But at that meeting an item had been put into the consent agenda and unclearly titled “traffic monitoring equipment.” The only person who spoke against the topic was longtime activist Robert Norse, who hadn’t been aware of the item until that day.
One other person, Kern Akold, spoke in favor. “It’s too bad. It’s kind of spying. But we have way too much happening that’s bad,” Akold told the council. “We’ve got to do something about it.”
Mike Rotkin says a robust community discussion has yet to happen on the topic. That September meeting, he says, “probably met the legal requirement for a public hearing, but it was probably way less than most people concerned about this issue would think is even vaguely reasonable.”
It was almost one year ago that council unanimously agreed at that meeting to have the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) use a $37,000 U.S. Justice Department grant to buy ALPRs. According to an email sent to deputy chief Steve Clark, and obtained by GT, officers are looking at possible locations near the Boardwalk, and officers told the ACLU that Ocean Street and Broadway Avenue would be another possible location. There would likely be at least one device on a police car as well.
Clark did not respond to requests for an interview or answer emailed questions about the new cameras.
California Highway Patrol is also looking into using ALPR technology in the Santa Cruz area, according to the CHP communications director.
The Santa Cruz ACLU organized a public forum on ALPRs and wider surveillance issues in February that was attended by at least 50 people, but some civil rights advocates say trying to convene a robust public hearing about new police surveillance tools after police seek funds and make plans is too little, too late.
“These issues shouldn’t be hashed out on the day of approval. There should be a public debate before funding is sought,” says Nicole Ozer, policy director of technology and civil liberties for the Northern California ACLU. “What we’re seeing in Santa Cruz is happening in a lot of communities around the country where there’s a lot of federal funding being made available for surveillance technology.”
Because the money is coming from the federal government it sometimes circumvents the normal debate and oversight that might occur in a budget process,” she adds.
Ozer compared the lack of public input about ALPRs in Santa Cruz to the recent acquisition of a drone by San Jose Police.
“In San Jose community members should’ve learned about the drone before funding was sought and not nine months after the police had purchased a drone,” she says. “That’s an interesting area for Santa Cruz to look at. Today it’s ALPRs, and tomorrow it could be something else.”
Rotkin says there’s still time to stop the cameras, adding that it would require a significant organizing effort to do so.
Ozer is optimistic about possible future discussions and points to community pressure that recently stopped the building of a Domain Awareness Center, a city wide surveillance center once planned for Oakland, and expansion of police surveillance cameras in San Francisco.
San Francisco’s program was put on hold after a study by UC Berkeley proved in 2008 that previously installed cameras were unsuccessful at preventing crime.