The Police Accountability Board has some reservations about BPD’s proposal for automated license plate readers. Credit: Zac Farber

With auto and auto parts theft on the rise, police are looking to install automated license plate readers around Berkeley to get real-time alerts when stolen cars or cars tied to serious crimes enter the city. City police accountability officials, meanwhile, say they have lingering questions about the privacy implications of the readers, as well as other reservations.

The city is looking to install 52 cameras. The police department has not yet determined the precise locations for the readers, but has said they are likely to be best situated on major thoroughfares and routes into and out of Berkeley.

The initial cost of the cameras would be $250,000 or less, and a yearly subscription costs $175,000 or less, according to a presentation police Sgt. Joseph Ledoux gave Tuesday to the City Council’s Public Safety Policy Committee. The data retention window would be 30 days. Flock Safety, the vendor used by Vallejo and Piedmont, would be responsible for storing the data.

The readers “do not capture people,” according to Ledoux’s presentation. The readers do not recognize faces and are not intended for traffic enforcement, he said.

Police believe the readers will help them react immediately if and when stolen or wanted vehicles enter the city. They expect to increase their clearance rate and “absolutely expect to see (a) higher number of stolen auto recoveries,” Ledoux said.

Berkeley police already use readers for parking enforcement, but that hardware is governed by a different use policy.

Ledoux said neighboring cities have already used the readers to great effect. Vacaville saw a 33% decrease in auto theft and a 35% increase in arrests related to auto thefts after putting their readers into use, he said.

In Berkeley, 703 vehicles were stolen over the last 180 days, a 43% increase over the previous 180 days and a rate of nearly four cars a day, Ledoux said.

According to a letter to the council from City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley, police in several nearby cities have caught suspects wanted in Berkeley by using readers in their cities. And there have been several instances in Berkeley where, had the city already installed readers, Berkeley police may have been able to apprehend suspects as soon as they entered the city, possibly preventing crimes before they happened, Williams-Ridley wrote.

Besides tracking vehicles that have been stolen or are tied to other crimes like robberies and shootings, the readers can help police find people at risk in cases of amber, silver and blue alerts, Ledoux said.

Kitty Calavita, a Police Accountability Board member, said Tuesday the board had several concerns. She said there was not yet enough evidence that the readers reduce crime, that they could present threats to civil liberties, that there were still questions on what outside agencies might be able to access data captured through the vendor, that the readers were prone to errors and that the board wanted more clarity on retention schedules for information captured by the readers.

Hansel Aguilar, the city’s director of police accountability, questioned the effect the readers were expected to have on racial disparities in traffic stops by Berkeley police officers.

“It’s an uncomfortable discussion, but it’s a necessary one. We have racial disparities in this city,” Aguilar said. “We need to have more conversations about what these technologies are going to do for that. Are they going to solve these issues, or are they going to keep contributing to these issues?”

Readers have been touted as a tool to reduce applications of bias by grabbing objective information like plate numbers, car makes and models, but the Police Accountability Board said that, as with the efficacy of the readers themselves, there was not yet enough research to back that up.

While the proposed policy specifically forbids releasing data for purposes of immigration enforcement, skeptics suggested agencies from states with more restrictive laws on reproductive health may try to access the data to track people who come to Berkeley for appointments.

Berkeley could conceivably release data from the readers to outside law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, but only subject to review by Berkeley police, and the condition that the requester “will sign an acknowledgment letter stating that the shared data will only be used for the purposes that are aligned with the Berkeley Police Department policy,” according to the proposed policy.

Asked about someone outside Berkeley attempting to obtain the data through a subpoena, Assistant City Attorney Brendan Darrow said the “city would have to defend privacy on a case-by-case basis.”

The committee voted to give a “qualified positive recommendation” for the acquisition and use policy for the readers, with the expectation that both the police department and the Police Accountability Board would continue to work on the proposal before it went before the full council.

Alex N. Gecan joined Berkeleyside in 2023 as a senior reporter covering public safety. He has covered criminal justice, courts and breaking and local news for The Middletown Press, Stamford Advocate and...