Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
San Mateo police Officer Shandon Murphy shows how the department’s vehicle-mounted license plate reader scans and sends data to the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center.
Law enforcement agencies across San Mateo County are striving to strike a balance between promoting public safety and privacy rights while using automated license plate readers contributing to a regional database that’s gathered more than 46 million images in the last year alone.
San Mateo, Redwood City, Menlo Park and Daly City police departments as well as the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office’s Vehicle Theft Task Force deploy vehicles equipped with LPRs that are constantly scanning throughout their daily scope of work.
During a recent nearly 12-hour shift, one of San Mateo’s two LPR-equipped patrol cars accumulated nearly 10,000 images between four roof-mounted cameras that can even read in the dark.
“I can’t overestimate how important it really is. They’re not looking at them for collecting data to know where our neighbors travel, we’re specifically looking for cars involved in specific crimes,” said San Mateo Police Chief Susan Manheimer.
While law enforcement has found notable success in using LPRs to apprehend criminals, civil liberty activists remained concerned about the storage and use of the sensitive data that displays images of innocent drivers’ license plates and coordinates of where they were scanned.
The data collected by local officers is overseen by the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, a government agency with a jurisdiction spanning from Monterey to Humboldt counties. Originally established by Congress after the Bay Area was deemed a high-intensity drug trafficking area, NCRIC is a intelligence fusion center that sets time limits on data storage and ensures only qualified individuals with a right to know have access, said NCRIC Director Mike Sena.
The data is purged every 12 months, or can be held for up to five years if connected to a crime, and those who seek information must be pre-screened with an active case under investigation, Sena said.
Over the past year, NCRIC has received approximately 46.5 million images from its partner agencies, Sena said.
“There is a concern about how long [data is] retained, how long it’s stored and those are valid questions. From my perspective, you have to have a reasonable reason to store data and it’s got to have a purpose,” Sena said.
Privacy concerns, legislation
While NCRIC maintains regulatory oversight, representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union and state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, remain concerned about the pervasive use of LPRs.
“Our concerns stem from the fact that license plate readers can scan and collect the information of innocent people, innocent drivers,” said Chris Conley, a policy attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “Location information can reveal very sensitive information about people. If they’re visiting a church, or a clinic or even open-mic night at a bar, all of these things reveal information about a person that shouldn’t be sitting in a database somewhere.”
Conley said the public should have a voice in how the information is used and Hill has proposed legislation that among other things, would require agencies to provide hearings and a public comment period before implementing LPR programs.
Hill’s proposal passed its first hearing in the Senate’s Transportation Committee Tuesday and will head to the Judiciary Committee in the coming weeks.
Hill said he’s particularly concerned about unregulated private companies that deploy LPRs and earn the support of law enforcement by opening their databases at no charge. In testing the span of private vendors, Hill said he gave a family member’s license plate number to a private detective who returned with an image of the vehicle in a gym parking lot.
“It’s a gross violation I believe of someone’s right to privacy when you have the ability to track someone’s whereabouts. And there’s so much of this going on, they could find out your regular habits,” Hill said.
Sena said NCRIC does not provide any information to private companies but they do accept their data while following NCRIC’s more stringent policies concerning access and storage.
“I hate to discount any of the work that private companies do. There are private companies out there that provide services for folks and there’s a lot more readers in the hands of private companies than there are in the hands of law enforcement,” Sena said. “We can control what we do from government, but we can’t really control what the private sector does.”
San Mateo County Sheriff Greg Munks is the current chair of NCRIC’s Executive Committee, an oversight board that consists of state, local and federal agency leaders.
“We’ve gone to great lengths to make sure our systems are secure, that only people who have a legal right the information have access. We don’t share the information with any private companies and we don’t browse the information. We only go to it when we have a specific law enforcement reason,” Munks said.
Law enforcement officials agreed this rapidly growing technology is an invaluable asset to solving crimes and point to the recent arrest of a group of strong-armed robbers who stole a woman’s purse at the Bridgepointe Shopping Center in January.
A witness to the crime reported a license plate number but a Department of Motor Vehicle search connected the vehicle to a Central Valley address, which wasn’t very helpful under the time-sensitive condition, Sena said. Police then searched the NCRIC database and determined the vehicle was spotted by an LPR less than two weeks earlier at a Redwood City home. Police soon found the suspects at the neighboring city and apprehended the suspects, Sena said.
Without the use of LPRs and a regional database, the quick arrest might never have happened, Sena said.
Officers using the NCRIC system are alerted when their LPR scans a vehicle that has been tagged as involved in Amber Alerts or missing persons cases, as stolen, connected to a crime and more. Over the last year, San Mateo County NCRIC users were alerted to 3,183 vehicles that had been flagged or reported, Sena said.
Between April 2014 and March 2015, a total of 14,114 searches were conducted throughout NCRIC’s region. About 7,219 of those were related to locating stolen, wanted or suspect vehicles and 6,106 sought to locate suspects with active warrants or who were part of a criminal investigation, according to Sena.
Along with local law enforcement agencies who have LPRs, Sena said NCRIC’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program also deploys its own equipment within the county.
Daly City police Sgt. Harold Rolfes said his department maintains two vehicle-mounted LPRs that have assisted with the recovery of stolen vehicles.
“It’s like having a second set of eyes. It’s another tool for us to use and it’s a beneficial tool,” Rolfes said.
Only five county agencies currently have LPRs, however, Hillsborough and San Carlos are also considering purchasing equipment.
For the various local police departments that don’t own their own LPRs, many use the sheriff’s equipment as needed. The sheriff’s Vehicle Theft Task Force has four mobile readers and one that’s carried on a trailer that are deployed to various sites throughout the county, according to sheriff’s Lt. Alma Zamora.
Burlingame police Sgt. Don Shepley said his department has located a few stolen cars after borrowing the county’s equipment.
“I think any time you can recover stolen property, you’ve found a good use for a piece of technology. As a small agency like us, we can’t afford our own … so being able to share with a larger agency was something that helped us out. We were able to return stolen property to people and that’s kind of what police work is all about,” Shepley said.
San Bruno police Lt. Troy Fry said their city also borrows the sheriff’s equipment several times a year and the NCRIC system has enabled them to locate suspects for which they previously had no leads.
San Mateo police Sgt. Rick Decker added LPRs save resources during crime scene investigations. County homicide protocol requires all license plates in and around the scene be written down, a process that used to take several officers multiple hours. With LPRs, the process now takes minutes, Decker said.
Furthermore, LPRs provide instantaneous results whereas a DMV search for a partial plate often takes days, Decker said.
Manheimer said there’s been a significant uptick in property crimes such as residential burglaries highlighting a disturbing trend. Intelligence shows transitory criminal groups often steal vehicles and travel to San Mateo County and the Peninsula to target homes. Catching and tracking the burglars depends on following the trail of the vehicles, Manheimer said.
Manheimer advocates for stationary LPRs and said NCRIC ensures adequate dissemination and purging policies are in place to ease privacy concerns.
“There’s controls on when they’re queried and the query needs to have a criminal nexus. So no one’s shopping around, no one should be worried if they’re not committing crimes,” Manheimer said. “We’re not looking to figure out where you go shopping, we’re really looking to keep a safety net around San Mateo so we’re not a victim to predatory criminals and gangs.”
Munks agreed LPRs are vital in efforts combating property crimes adding peace officers are familiar in dealing with private information such as criminal records.
“We feel we have sufficient safeguards in place to make sure the information is not abused,” Munks said. “We’re used to dealing with data that is sensitive and secure.”
Nonetheless, Conley said the ACLU is striving to provide the public a voice in how they’re monitored locally and across the nation.
“We would like to see ongoing community oversight measures that really promote accountability, a public policy that states how LPRs are going to be used,” Conley said. “Is this the right thing going forward or can we improve or change the process and continue to respect individuals rights and liberties as well as public safety.”
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106