Opinion: Why cameras and license plate readers are needed

As three District 2 residents who have personally witnessed shootings, attempted carjackings and burglaries, we welcome this development.

There is a long-overdue initiative to finally install public safety cameras and Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs) at major traffic arteries in Berkeley. Cameras are being considered as part of the fiscal year 2022 budget at a City Council meeting tonight and ALPRs for the fiscal year 2024 budget. As three District 2 residents who have personally witnessed shootings, attempted carjackings and burglaries (to say nothing of the countless gunshots we have heard in our years as residents), we welcome this development. Nevertheless, there are some who oppose it, including Adolfo Cabral, who recently penned an opinion piece in Berkeleyside on behalf of the Berkeley Progressive Alliance on the matter. Given the stakes of these efforts, we wanted to reply to Mr. Cabral’s piece directly.

His key arguments are as follows: 1. Evidence for camera efficacy in combatting crime is spotty. 2. There are better tools for reducing crime, and 3. There are other city priorities more worthy of funding. We’ll respond to each of these arguments in order.

Mr. Cabral notes that some papers used to justify the use of security cameras are “… only effective in combating crime if concentrated and routinely monitored by trained staff.” He then argues that Berkeley’s cameras would not be actively monitored and, as such, would be ineffectual. However, the proposed use of the public safety cameras and ALPRs is explicit that these would be positioned in targeted areas. The Public Safety Camera proposal approved by the City Council literally prioritized 10 intersections that are major transportation arteries and lie in close proximity to locations frequented by gun violence.

Additionally, while the cameras would not be actively monitored, they would absolutely be utilized for active police investigations. We need look no further as to the efficacy of this tool than the capture of an Oakland sex offender involved in at least three incidents in Berkeley. He was arrested last Wednesday evening thanks, in no small part, to video footage of the offender fleeing the scene. Indeed, it is the type of camera usage considered by Berkeley that led the Urban Institute’s Report to say about Baltimore’s use of cameras that “both property and violent crimes declined by large percentages in the months following camera implementation,” and that in Chicago, “(The) results provide compelling support for the implementation and use of public surveillance cameras by the Chicago Police Department.”

Mr. Cabral argues that there are better tools than cameras for reducing crime that are not being taken up by the council, namely bike patrols and more investigators for the Berkeley Police Department (BPD), and that more funding should also be deployed for the “Ceasefire” program. With regards to more bike patrols and investigators, both of us wholeheartedly endorse both ideas.  However, the problem is not for lack of support: the bike patrol measure literally advanced through the City Council in June. The problem is that BPD is drastically understaffed. As Berkeleyside recently reported, BPD had only 149 officers on the roster in October, which is a historic low. When factoring in the number of officers out at any time due to injury, leave or pending retirements, the problem is even worse than it seems. Indeed, part of the very justification for cameras and ALPRs is precisely because there are not enough active police officers on duty to apprehend criminal in real-time. As to Ceasefire, it is absolutely worthwhile for Berkeley to invest resources in diverting our youth away from criminal activity through mentoring and other social services. However, the idea that this will obviate the need for cameras is laughable as many criminals are never caught (only 10 of 29 shootings as of Sept. 1 had been closed with an identified suspect), so we do not even know who they are, and many of those that are caught are not Berkeley residents. Mr. Cabral fails to spell out what role a Berkeley Ceasefire program has, if any, for stopping criminals who come here from Stockton, San Gabriel, Alameda, Santa Rosa or Vallejo.

Finally, Mr. Cabral notes that funding cameras come at a cost of other city priorities, such as the effort to electrify buildings in Berkeley or provide free bus rides on Sunday for Berkeley residents. We are also sympathetic to all of these measures. However, we have to disagree with Mr. Cabral on how much Berkeley should prioritize these efforts at the expense of public safety. Simply put, we believe our elected leaders have no higher responsibility than to keep their residents safe. For too long, too many of our Berkeley elected officials have failed us on this matter. It is why Berkeley is safer than just 2% of U.S. cities. It is why a Berkeley resident is 32% more likely to be the victim of a violent crime and 154% more likely to be the victim of a property crime than the median California city. It is why we have over 800% more crime per square mile than the median California city (go here for the data). It is why we can have a pregnant woman shot dead in a drive-by shooting with her mother and child in the car and 14 months later still not know who perpetrated the crime. All these facts and figures should be seen for what they are: a shameful embarrassment and a blight on our city. Thankfully, we have city leaders who are finally working to rectify it. We hope all our City Council members will follow their example. Enough is enough.

Josh Buswell-Charkow, Steve Green and Francis Wong are longtime District 2 residents.