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Council votes to add license plate readers to some Redwood City streets

Council approves contract for 25 devices
Flock Safety camera on pole. courtesy Flock

Redwood City’s City Council has approved a contract by a leading automated license plate reader company to install 25 devices to deter criminal activity.

The cameras will be installed at main thoroughfares, including El Camino Real, Woodside Road, Farm Hill Boulevard, Veterans Boulevard, Marsh Road, Redwood Shores Parkway, Marine Parkway, East Bayshore Road, Whipple Avenue and Edgewood Road. The police department said the cameras are necessary to help keep out-of-town criminals from preying on Redwood City residents.

The 6-1 decision, with Council member Chris Sturken as the lone dissenter, approved a $243,750 contract with Flock Safety on Monday night, Sept. 11, to install the ALPR devices at key points in the city. The agreement would last three years, beginning from September 2023 through September 2026.

The council approved the contract, but multiple members expressed concern over the police department’s draft ALPR policy, which Sturken, who voted against the contract, said lacked some privacy safeguards. The council, however, doesn’t have the authority to direct changes to the policy, according to the city manager and the city attorney. The city manager’s office would provide an annual report after the first year of the readers program, City Manager Melissa Stevenson Diaz said. 

Redwood City crime statistics from 2020 through 2021 show that of 426 violent crimes solved by police, about a third of them, but of the more than 3,000 property crimes, the case-closure rate was only about 5% due to a lack of evidence and investigative leads. The majority of the cases involve vehicles in some way, said police Sgt. Jeff Boyce.

The Redwood City Police Department, upon detecting crimes, such as burglaries and hit-and-run crashes, in Redwood City, alerted other police departments and gave them vehicle details. The information was added to their license-reader hot lists. This resulted in the identification and arrest of suspects in other jurisdictions, according to the Redwood City Police Department.

Police said the readers, which are in fixed positions and are motion activated, are triggered by passing cars. The software interprets the image and automatically reads the license plate if there is one. The license plate is checked against a “hot list,” which includes stolen vehicles and custom hot lists of suspected vehicles in crime investigations for shootings, burglaries, Amber Alerts and other crimes. When a car that matches the hot list is viewed by one of the cameras, it sends an alert to the police dispatch center and any working officers almost instantaneously, he said.

The software can identify the color of the vehicle, the make, body style, whether it’s a sedan, pickup truck, or van, and specific identifiers such as stickers, window stickers and roof racks. The images are stored for no more than 30 days unless they are used in a criminal investigation, and there was probable cause to believe that the vehicle was associated with the crime, he said.

The readers don’t take images of the driver and passengers. The system also doesn’t use facial recognition nor has access to any personal information of the driver or the registered owner.

“There’s no audio or video recorded, just still images, and it doesn’t have any way of tracking community members. This is meant for objective evidence of looking for vehicles with specific identifiers or a specific license plate and in accordance with our policy and state law,” Boyce said. “It will not be used for any enforcement of immigration laws. We also will not be using it for traffic enforcement such as speeding or any sort of parking enforcement.” 

Addressing privacy concerns, the images are also encrypted and will be stored on secure cloud servers. Because they are installed at the city’s perimeter, the cameras won’t be pointing and recording residents’ homes and businesses, he added.

Redwood City is among a growing list of cities in San Mateo County to install the readers. There are currently 300 cameras in San Mateo County. Private HOAs or businesses currently operate 14 cameras in Redwood City, he said. The cameras are installed by law enforcement agencies in Atherton, Burlingame Colma, Foster City, Hillsborough, San Bruno, San Mateo, and South San Francisco. The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office has cameras in San Carlos, Woodside and Millbrae, and the agency will be installing 19 cameras in North Fair Oaks and nine in Emerald Hills, Boyce added.

The public’s appetite for the readers appears to be strong, police said. The department held four public meetings, including at the main library, Redwood Shores, and the police Advisory Committee. Police received positive feedback from the community and businesses indicating they want the system in the city.

Council member Sturken expressed concerns about security and safeguards, however. He said he wanted to see changes in the police department’s policy regarding the use and storage of data gathered by the readers. He also noted that a camera system by another firm had a 30% misread rate, which he felt could lead to innocent people being stopped or investigated by police.

“While I don’t know what the misread rate would be with this system I think given the potential for misreads, it’s imperative that we have an explicit step-by-step process for confirming the reading prior to enforcement,” he said.

Hector Soliman Valdez of Flock Safety said the company’s system is far more refined. If a match is made with a plate on the hot list, the system tells the officer the percent probability the image is accurate. If the likelihood dips below 95%, the system will issue a triangle warning sign saying there should be further precautions, such as human verification.

“Every image is given a probability because no two images are the same in the sense that there may be different lighting conditions, weather conditions, etc., impacting that image… And so it’s important that each image has a probability associated with it,” Soliman Valdez said.

Sturken said that as part of the verification process, the policy language should require a confirmation double check by two people before law enforcement is dispatched. The policy should also specify that the information must not be used to harass or intimidate people and must not be for personal use or to infringe on anyone’s First Amendment rights, such as the right to protest publicly.

But while the council is obligated to receive a report and approve the use of the military equipment under state law, operating administrative policies such as using the license plate readers isn’t up for council review, City Manager Melissa Stevenson Diaz. She said that the council’s action on Monday night was limited to approving or rejecting the contract and could not include policy changes. City Attorney Veronica Ramirez confirmed those limitations.

Vice Mayor Lisette Espinosa-Garnica said she would be interested in an annual report given to the city council and how the data gathered by the cameras are being used.

“I did have concerns about outside-state interactions because we have more anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ states” that increasingly might seek tracking information in addition to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Sturken said an annual report requirement needs to be included in the police department’s policy.

“I’d be really supportive of getting sort of a (report) like our military weapons report; an annual report from our police department on the cases closed, the property recovered, the success rate, but also the incidents from potential misreads or just learning lessons that we have. … We want to make sure that we’re keeping our community safe, and we can mitigate any sort of cases of mistaken identity and those sorts of unintended consequences,” Sturken said.

Stevenson Diaz said she clearly understood that most of the council is interested in an annual report and intended to work with the police chief to provide a report to the council.

“We’re hearing the feedback related to your interest related to the policy but it wouldn’t be appropriate for the council to direct a change to the policy,” she said.

City Attorney Ramirez confirmed the council’s excluded role in changing administrative policy.

“You cannot direct the revision or drafting of an administrative policy because you are overstepping. I do want you to be clear about that. This is an administrative policy and the council does not have authority to direct or approve. The council has authority to approve this contract. And that is well within your discretion tonight,” Ramirez said.

Stevenson Diaz said an annual report might give better insight into the areas of concern that the council has raised.

“I have heard, certainly, several concerns raised tonight that I think can be answered over the course of experience, say in a year,” she said.

She cautioned that administrative policies must strike the right balance between enough information and guidance to staff. She added that they know what to do, can be held accountable, and have proper training. Still, without having so many details in a policy that it paralyzes staff who can’t act with appropriate speed when necessary, she said.

“This policy as presented is based on standards; it is based on best practices. It does reflect pending legislation that is ahead of the curve that has not yet even been approved. So I’m not convinced right at this moment that it needs more detail,” Stevenson Diaz said. 

But there might be changes next year after the cameras have been used.

“I’m listening attentively to the concerns being raised. But I think it’s best in my view at this point for staff to return with an annual report and then I think it’d be really better to have some experience with the cameras under our belt before we as staff assess whether or not we need to give any other direction to the department,” Stevenson Diaz said.


About the Author: Sue Dremann

Sue Dremann is a veteran journalist who joined the Palo Alto Weekly in 2001. She is a breaking news and general assignment reporter who also covers the regional environmental, health and crime beats.
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