Carlsbad is expanding its use of automated license plate readers into a system that aims to collect the registration information of every vehicle that enters the city.
The $1-million police department project — which will add stationary cameras at 14 intersections, creating a virtual gateway at the city's borders — was approved by the City Council last week, sparking outrage over privacy rights and government control from several residents and one council member.
Four council members, however, said they were confident the information can be kept secure and that the system will increase safety for residents and police officers. They also said it may deter criminals from breaking the law in the city.
"To me, $1 million is a drop in the bucket when you are trying to protect 100,000 or more people, and everyone who comes into our city every day," said Councilman Keith Blackburn, a retired police officer. "I don't think this ... is going to violate privacy."
Several law enforcement agencies across San Diego County — including the Oceanside and Escondido police departments and the Sheriff's Department — use license-plate readers on a much more limited basis. The devices are typically attached to certain patrol cars, scanning the plates of other vehicles that cross their paths. They have proved especially useful in locating stolen cars, officials have said.
Other cities throughout the nation, from Laguna Beach in neighboring Orange County to Palm Beach Shores in south Florida, have focused the plate readers on key access points into town — the blanket effect that Carlsbad is going for with its expansion.
But privacy rights advocates say widespread use of the devices can be a slippery slope and that strong laws are needed to govern how and when the information can be used.
"You can end up with a record of innocent drivers stored for an endless amount of time," said Kellen Russoniello, a staff attorney at the ACLU of San Diego. "It's fairly easy for nefarious government actors to find out where [people] go to the doctors, where they practice their religion … you can basically track wherever a person goes."
Carlsbad first equipped four patrol cars with the readers in 2011 and two of those remain in use, police Capt. Mickey Williams said in a presentation Tuesday to the City Council.
The cameras automatically recognize license plates and check the information against a law enforcement database, searching for hits about stolen vehicles, missing persons and other police cases.
In Carlsbad, according to police Capt. Mickey Williams, the data collected will be deleted after about one year unless it's needed for a criminal investigation.
The decision to expand the program was based in part on FBI statistics that show property crimes have increased by 23% and overall crime has gone up 19% in Carlsbad since record lows in 2014. The cause of the increase is unclear, but some have attributed it to the area's recent growth and to the state's early-release prison program.
Yet several residents at last week's council meeting said the cameras would take surveillance too far.
"This proposal is not at all within reason," Vickie Syage said. "We are innocent until proven guilty. Going to Vons is not a crime. You don't need to be Big Brother and monitor my trips to the grocery store."
Police logs show that "nearly half" of the crimes in Carlsbad are the result of people leaving their cars and garages unlocked, she said.
"We need to look at this for what it is — mass surveillance," said Noel Breen, a resident who waited through more than four hours of other matters at the council meeting to speak about the proposal.
"We live in dangerous times these days in terms of civil liberties," Breen said, adding that statistics show that relatively few crimes are solved by license plate readers compared to the huge amount of data collected.
Councilwoman Cori Schumacher agreed with the residents and cast the only vote against the purchase.
"This would greatly affect the private lives of our citizens," she said, and it would effectively create a "geofence" between the city and its neighbors.
However, other council members saw the cameras as useful tools and well worth the expense. The money will come from a fund with $12 million the city has set aside for technological innovations. The contract will cost $807,000 for the equipment, plus $800 a month for wireless connectivity, and installation costs that are expected to push the total over $1 million in the first year.
"It's really hard to put a price on trying to fight crime," said Mayor Matt Hall. "When it's a violent crime, and you can prevent it, how do you put a price on that?
"The harder question is what is my privacy worth … [but] I think the safeguards on this are more than adequate."