The City of Carlsbad Police Department’s use of license plate readers has raised questions about what exactly they record, how the technology works and what happens to the data. Watch this presentation from the Aug. 21, 2018, City Council meeting to get answers to these questions or get a summary below.
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Why does a city like Carlsbad need license plate readers?
Although lower than other cities in the region, crime is a concern in Carlsbad.
From 2014 to 2015, Carlsbad saw a 19% increase in crime: 23% increase in property crimes 16% decrease in violent crimes.
From 2015 to 2016, there was an overall increase of crime of 2%.
2016 was the third highest year of crime over the past 10 years.
The increase in thefts from vehicles is the primary cause for the overall increase in property crimes. This is a trend that is noted not only in San Diego County, but across all of California.
The number of auto thefts reported in Carlsbad has been steadily increasing each year since 2010.
To keep our crime rate as low as possible, the Police Department relies heavily on training and technology. We’ve been using license plate readers for the past six years on police vehicles. This plan will expand the use to more cars and some fixed locations.
What exactly will the license plate readers record?
They automatically detect license plates and record the number, an image of the small portion of the car that surrounds the plate, and date, time and location.
Are they set up to record people or other personal identifying information?
No. They are set up to read license plates. It's possible they could record a person in the vehicle, depending on the angle of the road, but typically the reader only captures the plate and a small part of the vehicle surrounding it.
Will having the license plates recorded give the police access to registration or other DMV records?
What happens to the license plate numbers?
They are compared to a database of vehicles that have already been identified as wanted vehicles connected to felonies (stolen vehicles, Amber Alerts, etc). If a match is found, the police are notified.
Can people easily hide their plates using sprays or cellophane?
No. These techniques interfere with license plate readers used for toll roads, but do not affect the readers we’ll be using.
Is it legal to record license plate numbers?
Yes, license plate numbers are not considered private. DMV records are not.
Who has access to what information?
Police officers have access to the license plate information. DMV and other personal information is not part of the license plate reader system. That information can only be accessed by an authorized police employee who has a legitimate law enforcement purpose, whether or not a license plate reader has captured a license plate number.
Why are license plate readers helpful?
Over 87% of agencies using license plate readers reported that it assisted in solving Part 1 major crimes, according to a NetChoice Law Enforcement survey from June 2013.
They have been used to help locate stolen cars, for Amber Alerts and to connect a series of crimes. They are also intended to deter crime. The license plate information is only one part of a police investigation, but having it available in a database significantly decreases the amount of time it can take to solve a crime. This, in turn, means our officers are more available to serve the community.
How many are there, and where are they?
The city originally had four vehicle mounted readers (in 2011). In 2017, the city replaced old ones and added new ones for a total of eight car-mounted readers. Also in 2017, the city put 51 readers at 14 locations (listed in the staff report) for a total of 51 fixed location readers.
On Aug. 21, 2018, the City Council approved adding 35 more readers at 20 new locations. Get details in the staff report.
What do you say to people who are concerned about privacy?
We understand that people have concerns. We recently started using body cameras and had dozens of meetings with community members and groups about that technology and how it will be used. We plan to do the same with the license plate readers, meeting with residents and business owners to make sure they understand how this technology works and to answer their questions.
How will the police make sure this data is not misused?
This has been a big topic for local law enforcement. We understand people have concerns about the security of data and how it is stored and used. The license plate reader database is not linked to any other databases or information. Only officers conducting investigations will have access to the data, and there are strict state and federal laws about how it is used. After one year, it is erased.
Some people suggest using the money for the cameras to hire more police instead. What’s your reaction to this idea?
Both are important. The City Council approved hiring four new officers in the 2018-19 city budget. Having enough police officers on the ground is critical, but without access to information, we will always be at a disadvantage. Our goal is to use technology to help our officers keep the community safe in the most effective way possible.
How common are license plate readers?
Nearly all Southern California law enforcement agencies are using some sort of license plate reader system.
Currently, there are 201 agencies in the state of California using the technology Carlsbad selected.