La Cañada considers advanced licence plate cameras but question of privacy arises

The possibility of bringing more automatic license plate readers into the city took a step forward at the Public Safety Commission meeting on Monday night.

After more than an hour of discussion on the agenda item, which included feedback from the public and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the commission voted unanimously to bring to a future meeting an expert from LASD’s Advanced Surveillance and Protection Plan to speak more about options and costs.

Concerns raised during the meeting were privacy related, such as how the data gathered is stored in accordance to policy and procedures.

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La Cañada Flintridge currently has one mobile automatic license plate reader on a sheriff’s patrol car, according to the city, and many agencies use units attached to a radio car while a deputy is driving on patrol. The units can read license plates of vehicles and notify patrol vehicles when a “hit” is generated on a vehicle that is stolen or associated with a crime. In addition, stored license plate numbers taken from suspicious vehicles at specific times can be accessed by law enforcement in the act of solving crimes.

“The City Council is expressing concern,” said Peter Castro, division manager for the commission. “People are coming in from outside the city and committing these burglaries.” He said the automatic license plate readers were tools recommended to assist law enforcement in catching the lawbreakers.

Compared to the mobile units on patrol cars, stationary automatic license plate readers use an optical character recognition that can take a photo of a vehicle and send it to a cloud-based server that is connected to a database of all registered motor vehicles, according to the staff report. The units are capable of taking 100 images per minute and can capture the image of a vehicle traveling more than 100 miles per hour. Castro added that each camera is only capable of monitoring one lane of travel, so multiple cameras would be needed at an intersection, for example.

For the city, costs of the units would vary depending on the number of locations where the units could be placed, server storage and other variables. Castro said that the city of Rancho Palos Verdes recently installed stationary units, with that city’s staff estimating each unit cost approximately $15,000, not including infrastructure variables and maintenance costs. Officials there reported it’s believed the cameras have reduced crime in the city.

There are eight current LASD stations using automatic license plate readers, Castro said, noting that two stations addressed technical issues using the cameras.

“Privacy concerns come up here, such as government tracking individuals traveling throughout the city,” Castro said. He added that the units only read characters on a license plate and store it on a secure server. Law enforcement can only access that information if needed to investigate a crime or if there is a “hit” on a plate. Castro added that the state has requirements about server security to protect information.

Four options were presented from the commission’s staff report: pursue more research on stationary units, pursue more research on other options, including adding a second patrol car with a mobile automatic license plate reader, discontinue researching the units or provide alternative direction to staff.

Commissioner Chairperson Marilyn Smith had a motion on the floor to choose the option of researching the addition of a unit to a second patrol car when member Wes Seastrom suggested a cost-benefit analysis should be conducted with an expert on automatic license plate readers to determine whether the city could use a combination of mobile and stationary units.

“We have a lot of streets here,” Seastrom said. “The chances of getting a ‘hit’ by a patrol car seems kind of hit or miss. Maybe we look at a combination of intersections or off-ramps at freeways to put in a stationary camera.”

The other commissioners ultimately voted to go with Seastrom’s suggestion.

Resident Daniel McDonald attended the meeting with Cydney Motia. Together they are involved in one of La Cañada Flintridge’s 20 current neighborhood watch groups, in a city of approximately 20,000 residents. During public comment, Motia, who’s been captain of her watch for the last five years and said she’s noticed positive results from their efforts, suggested the city promote the neighborhood watch groups more often.

“I’m all for it,” McDonald said during public comment, referring to the camera units. "[However] the [Oct. 20 Valley Sun] article stated it as a tool to prevent burglaries. If that’s what it’s all about, it’s a waste of money.”

McDonald called the city’s response reactive, and suggested other agencies will want to reciprocate in sharing information. He said vehicles entering the database from La Cañada Flintridge will be “far below” the numbers in busier communities with more crime. While advocating for the mobile cameras, McDonald said there are other ideas the city can use to stem burglaries rather than tilting the city’s current effort solely around automatic license plate readers.

Earlier in the evening, Seastrom noted recent crime stats on residential burglaries are down in 2016 compared to 2015.

“A lot of times, these residential burglaries go in spurts,” Seastrom said. “In many times it’s the same group that’s doing this. So if you catch them, it drops completely down until some other group comes up.”

Matt Sanderson is a contributing writer.