This photo shows an example of a stationary automated license plate reader. The Berkeley Police Department plans to install 52 around town. Credit: Flock Safety

The City Council has approved a proposal for 52 new automated license plate reader cameras, a surveillance technology opponents say poses a grave danger to civil liberties and imperils religious minorities, migrant residents and patients seeking reproductive healthcare and other treatment not available outside California.

The council will revisit the program at the end of a two-year trial to decide whether to continue using the readers.

Police say the readers will help them fight spiking auto theft and other violent and property crimes by giving them real-time notifications when cars tied to crimes like robbery and homicide enter the city.

“The proposal threatens residents’ freedom of movement and reinforces patterns of economic and racial discrimination,” Tammy Kreznar, a senior organizer with the ACLU of Northern California, said Tuesday. “The public safety benefits of this surveillance are unproven.”

Councilmember Terry Taplin, who chairs the council’s Pubilc Safety Policy Committee where the plate readers came up for consideration, said that part of the “reimagining” process was to free up police to do more substantive investigations.

“Auto theft is not a civil liberty,” Taplin said Tuesday. “In an ideal world, crime-fighting technologies would be obsolete, however the world we live in is imperfect.”

Councilmember Ben Bartlett said he was unconvinced by the “sketchy data” on the effectiveness of license plate readers.

“I’m not compelled to overcome my initial reticence to endorse a problematic department having this ability,” Bartlett said.

Councilmember Susan Wengraf said her constituents “are very concerned about the uptick in crime” and that “this is not a perfect technology, but I challenge somebody to show me a technology that is perfect.”

The council and mayor voted 6-1 to go ahead with the license plate-reading cameras. Bartlett voted no, Sophie Hahn abstained and Kate Harrison was absent.

The initial installation of the 52 proposed readers is projected at $250,000 with a subscription fee of up to $175,000 a year.

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

This story was updated to clarify Councilmember Ben Bartlett’s remarks.

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...