A solar-paneled camera
This photo shows an example of a stationary automated license plate reader. The Berkeley Police Department hopes to install 52 around town. Credit: Flock Safety

The City Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to install 52 new automated license plate-reading cameras at as-yet-undetermined sites around Berkeley.

The Berkeley Police Department says the readers are an efficient and cost-effective tool in combating violent and property crime, especially auto theft. Privacy advocates and police watchdogs including the ACLU and the city’s Police Accountability Board, on the other hand, believe the readers present a threat to privacy rights and endanger several groups, including those who come to California for reproductive health care not available in other states.

“Vehicles, especially stolen ones, are used in crimes across Berkeley by people from neighboring cities,” Councilmember Susan Wengraf wrote in an email asking residents for feedback on the readers. She acknowledged that the readers gave some residents pause over privacy issues but suggested they could be a stopgap for a critically understaffed police department.

The proposed policy for the new readers, which would be installed for a two-year trial period, cited a 66% year-over-year increase in auto thefts as of July and estimated Berkeley residents have had nearly $2 million worth of cars stolen so far this year. The initial installation of the 52 proposed readers is projected at $250,000 with a yearly subscription fee of up to $175,000 a year.

The city already has mobile readers installed on some parking enforcement vehicles.

In a letter to the council, the ACLU of Northern California warned that the readers would threaten residents freedom of movement and could reinforce “patterns of economic and racial discrimination,” that the policy was simultaneously overly vague and overly secretive and that it could allow data sharing in conflict with state law, among other objections.

Every law enforcement agency in Alameda County, except for the Albany Police Department, already uses license plate readers in some capacity or another, according to a 2019 state audit.

The same audit found that several law enforcement agencies did not have comprehensive enough policies and that the number of plates of interest captured is very small compared to the number of plates scanned, around 0.1% in some cities. The audit found that the data gathered could allow police to track vehicles across various locations at different times.

It is precisely that type of targeting that, if misapplied, gives pause to privacy advocates.

The ACLU is especially concerned that there are not enough safeguards against data sharing with law enforcement agencies or “hostile prosecutors” targeting activists, religious minorities, reproductive health care patients and other groups, and about the “dragnet” nature of the technology, Nick Hidalgo, a staff attorney on the ACLU’s technology and civil liberties team, said in a phone interview.

Berkeley police Sgt. Joe Ledoux said that the proposed policy, as written, would only allow city police to share information if and when another agency were pursuing an investigation that California would typically allow.

A homicide investigation, for example, would be an instance where Berkeley police might share data, but they would not share data if an out-of-state agency were investigating alleged violations of reproductive health care law from that agency’s home state, Ledoux said.

The city’s Police Accountability Board also has reservations about the proposed policy and has voted unanimously not to support the policies as written.

Among the board’s concerns is the fact that the readers’ locations are still undetermined The board is also not convinced the projected costs will bear out and argued that “there is a lack of metrics for assessing impact and implementing mitigation measures” and that the city has not given alternatives a fair airing, according to a presentation the board discussed Monday evening in advance of Tuesday’s council meeting.

And while the number of “hits” may be small compared to the number of reads — in the tenths of a percent range in some cities — critics worry that those reads might not be accurate, citing a study in Vallejo that found that 37% of the “hits” from stationary readers were misreads.

Ledoux said that even if an automatic reader indicates there is a vehicle of interest nearby, the officer investigating still has to verify that the license plate in question has the correct number.

“They need to visually verify and then have dispatch run that plate up, because it could be that the … number 8 is coming up as the letter B,” Ledoux said.

While proponents of the readers have argued that they take implicit bias out of some police work, the ACLU has countered that “there’s bias inherent in the algorithm that controls the machine, there’s bias inherent to where they’re placed,” Hidalgo said. “The only way to know the extent of that bias is to figure out how these algorithms work.” As such, the ACLU took issue with police keeping the readers’ data confidential, saying it obstructed public oversight.

Ledoux said keeping the data confidential protects information that should not be accessible.

“The way it stands right now is that the police have no ability to look at that database unless we associate it with a crime, and then we follow the requirements, which is a case number and a reason,” LeDoux said. Opening up the reader data to the public with no restrictions, he said, could open the door to the types of abuses opponents of the readers have warned about, although by members of the public.

And while the vendor the city is considering, Flock, has built-in safeguards, the ACLU said having a third party run the system presents even more danger.

“We are very concerned that these third-party reservoirs or hosts of ALPR information have actually been sharing rather freely with any agency that requests it or that pays their subscription fee to access it,” Hidalgo said.

The council is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday. The readers, and the Police Accountability Board’s submissions, are on the council’s action calendar.

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...