Sacramento police cameras have got your number

By Tony Bizjak

tbizjak@sacbee.com

January 24, 2015 04:00 PM

A Sacramento police department license plate reader monitors an intersection in South Natomas. Brian Nguyen bnguyen@sacbee.com
A Sacramento police department license plate reader monitors an intersection in South Natomas. Brian Nguyen bnguyen@sacbee.com

It’s an ominous sight for some, a reassuring one for others. A small box with a flashing blue light and a Sacramento Police Department emblem on the cover sits high on a pole at Meadowview Road and Freeport Boulevard, overseeing the intersection.

The box contains one of the hot trends in law enforcement. Three cameras capture the license-plate numbers of passing vehicles. Since September, Sacramento police have installed boxes at five major intersections around the city, offering officers real-time data on cars that have helped lead to a handful of arrests.

They’re called Police Observation Devices, or PODs, and local police are trumpeting them as a key part of the “next-generation” technology they say is making Sacramento safer.

But some people, including a state senator, have raised privacy concerns. They question how the license-plate data might be used – and possibly abused – by police and also by private companies, including collection agencies, that also use the technology.

Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, has introduced legislation to put controls on license-plate-reading technology. It would require police and local city councils to hold public hearings to get community input before they deploy the cameras, and set up protocols for how the information could be used.

“This is a new technology that is, in many cases, infringing on our rights to privacy,” Hill said. “The public has a right and desire to know when their city is implementing these policies.”

Sacramento police are not shy about letting the public know what they are doing. The city sent out a news release recently announcing the cameras, and, in response to Sacramento Bee questions, emailed the locations where PODs are now in place.

“They are high visibility,” police spokesman Doug Morse said. “They are clearly marked and have blinking lights. We are hoping they can deter a crime from occurring.”

When a crime does take place, the cameras can show police which direction a suspect is heading and when. Some PODs can message police computers if a stolen car has passed through the intersection; others require police to manually remove and view the recordings. A week after the PODs were installed in September, Morse said, cameras alerted police that a stolen vehicle had just passed through the intersection of San Juan and Truxel roads.

“Officers rushed to the area, recovered the stolen car and arrested the driver,” Officer Justin Brown said.

Numerous cities in California and elsewhere are using similar technology. Typically, the cameras are attached to the roofs of law enforcement vehicles, angled outward and downward to read license plates to the right and left of the car as it drives down the street or through a parking lot. In addition to its new PODs on poles, the Sacramento City Police Department also has two rooftop license-plate readers on patrol cars.

The technology has uses beyond catching criminals. Sacramento city parking officials use license-plate reading cameras perched atop their code enforcement vehicles to check for cars that have parked too long in a limited parking zone. The cameras have replaced tire chalking.

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department has a pair of license-plate-reading cameras on the roofs of 17 of its vehicles, sheriff’s Sgt. Kyle Hoertsch said. The devices alert officers if the car in the next lane was reported stolen, or if it is owned by a parolee, a sex offender, or someone who hasn’t paid a fine.

“You basically have R2D2 in the car with you, looking at all the license plates for you,” Hoertsch said.

Although the technology is gaining traction, it’s not new. The California Highway Patrol has been using rooftop readers for nearly 10 years. The CHP’s readers are programmed to alert officers only if a car is stolen, and only a small number of CHP vehicles have the readers.

In the CHP’s north-area district in Sacramento, two of the 30-plus CHP patrol cars have had readers attached. Those readers are outmoded and have been removed, a spokesman said. The north-area office is expecting two new readers soon.

The technology helped the CHP recover 1,524 stolen vehicles statewide in 2014 and led to 194 arrests, officials said. The agency’s north-area spokesman, Chad Hertzell, said that he has patrolled with a reader atop his car, and that almost all the stolen cars it found were parked at the time they were detected. Sacramento police say their pole cameras have led to 10 arrests since September. Some law enforcement agencies also use the cameras on mobile trailers that can be stationed temporarily in high-crime areas.

In general, video recordings are becoming a key investigative tool, police say. Following a crime, officers often ask nearby store owners and neighbors if they have video cameras that might have captured footage. Video helped lead to arrests in a fatal shooting at a child’s birthday party last May in Peregrine Park in the North Natomas area of Sacramento. Video on light-rail trains and stations also has led to arrests.

While camera-makers trumpet the technology as a way for governments to save time and money while improving crime-fighting, the devices long have raised privacy concerns. The technology is also marketed to private companies, such as credit agencies, private investigators and vehicle repossessors. The relationship between private vendors of the technology and police agencies has come under scrutiny elsewhere.

Sen. Hill failed to win passage last year of a bill that would have controlled the use of license-plate readers. He is back this year with Senate Bill 34.

His proposed law would require companies to make public more information about how they use the license-plate data, and to keep a record of who gets access. Hill said he is concerned about private companies collecting and selling data. He paid a private investigator last year to check on his wife – as a test – and the investigator came up with a private company’s photo of Hill’s wife’s car parked in a gym lot.

Although Hill’s bill focuses mainly on private companies, the bill also would require “a public agency considering implementation of a (license-plate camera) program to provide an opportunity for public comment at a regularly scheduled public meeting of the public agency’s governing body before such a program is adopted,” according to a news statement from Hill.

ACLU attorney Matt Cagle said his group shares Hill’s concern that private companies use the data to “put our whereabouts up for sale,” and he said few law enforcement agencies discuss the technology with constituents before employing it.

“There should be a conversation between local law enforcement and residents before these technologies are required, to decide whether these devices are needed at all, and on safeguards for oversight and accountability,” Cagle said.

Sacramento’s police and sheriff’s departments say they do not share the license-plate data they collect with private firms, although the Sheriff’s Department says it does receive license-plate information from car-repossession companies and others who use their own camera cars.

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.