.Santa Cruz City Council Debating License Plate Readers

Santa Cruz Police Chief Escalante requested the Santa Cruz City Council to secure a grant for 14 fixed cameras

The Santa Cruz City Council is debating acquiring 14 automated license plate reader (ALPR) cameras to monitor the entrances and exits of the city of Santa Cruz. The police department would partner with Flock Safety to install the fixed ALPR cameras at key access points, which police officers could use to find vehicle information. 

According to a report presented last week to the City Council, the data will be used to “identify stolen vehicles, locate missing children or adults and investigate individuals wanted for serious crimes.” 

SCPD Chief Bernie Escalante was on hand at the Nov. 28 council meeting to make the case that the city would benefit from ALPR’s in catching criminals. He said that in the case of the recent string of cannabis dispensary thefts, these cameras would have helped identify the suspects’ vehicles.

“My goal is to first have every [entrance and exit] out of the city covered. That would be my goal,” Escalante said.

But residents and officials have their concerns about the necessity of the cameras, and worry the data that the ALPR’s collect could be abused. 

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The City Council is now assessing the necessity of a sweeping ALPR system in a city wary of being surveilled.

SCPD Makes Its Case

Escalante said he hopes to use funds from a federal grant to purchase 14 fixed cameras at those access points, with an additional eight purchased using the city’s general fund.

The State Homeland Security Program Grant (SHSPG) is a yearly grant that the Department of Homeland Security funds. These grants are meant to assist states in the prevention and response to domestic terror threats, according to the DHS website. SCPD has used the grant in years previous to purchase cover body armor, a Throwbot, specialized visual equipment and personal ballistic shields.

Of the $329,000 Santa Cruz County might receive from the 2024 grant, SCPD is requesting the city allocate $85,000 for a potential two-year contract with Flock Safety.

Flock Safety was founded in 2017 in San Francisco and is now based out of Atlanta, GA. It specializes in video surveillance and analytics that uploads to a cloud run by Amazon Web Services. To date, the company has installed cameras in 1,400 cities across the nation. Recently, venture capital investments gave the company $300 million. In addition to selling to law enforcement agencies, it also sells its systems to HOA’s and schools.

During his presentation at the Nov. 28 meeting, Escalante assured the council that the Flock’s ALPR system would only be used to identify vehicles sought in a crime or that pop up on law enforcement “hot lists.” It would not amount to constant surveillance, he said.

“[There is] misinformation that is out there about what it does or what it doesn’t do. Again, it does not provide any personal identifying information,” Escalante said. 

He added that the system does not employ facial recognition software or will be used for constant video surveillance.

But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) disagrees. In a white paper that the ACLU published last year, the organization warns that the AI technology Flock uses for its ALPR systems is not limited to law enforcement. It says that Flock Safety “is building a form of mass surveillance unlike any seen before in American life.” Private users of the system can also make their own “hot lists” of vehicles at their discretion, which alert law enforcement agencies using Flock.

The state is trying to address some of these concerns. California Senate Bill 34 (2015), state law requires that data collected through an ALPR system be protected, including limiting how the information is shared. Another bill, AB 1463, is  moving through the California legislature and, if signed into law, would prevent sharing information from ALPR cameras to out-of-state federal agencies that might use the surveillance to “enforce federal immigration laws, bans on abortion services and gender-affirming care.”

Escalante said that the SCPD would deny out-of-state agencies access to the data. Additionally, the system would only store license plate information for a maximum of 30 days if not part of an active investigation.

A key feature of the Flock system, which Escalante touts, is the ability for law enforcement agencies to tap into the databases of other agencies that also use the system. This gives police departments a way to alert other jurisdictions of flagged vehicles in hopes of apprehending suspects. 

Surveying Surveillance Concerns

Despite the police chief’s assurances residents voiced their opposition to the department’s plans for the city. Peter Goldblum, chair of the local chapter of the ACLU, said the proposal was a massive invasion of privacy.

“I can see Visit Santa Cruz’s new motto: ‘Come to the city of Sun, Surf and Surveillance’,” Goldblum said during public comment. 

Prior to the presentation in front of the city council, more than a dozen letters opposing the camera system were submitted. 

The last time SCPD approached the city about installing ALPR cameras was in 2013. Back then, the department requested the purchase of eight mobile ALPR that could be mounted on patrol cars. While the proposal was approved by the city council, the cameras were never purchased, according to SCPD community relations specialist Joyce Blaschke.

The current city council, however, is questioning the purported benefits of the Flock system.

“I want to be convinced this is effective and I’m not, based on the information I have available to me,” said councilmember Sandy Brown at the Nov. 28 session.

When Brown asked Escalante to provide data illustrating the effectiveness of the Flock system and its role in deterring crime, he did not have any on hand. He said that in order to obtain that data, the city would have to try out the system first.

“What we don’t have is information about the extent to which they have actually led to, you know, the successful prosecution of crimes,” Brown said.

Mayor Fred Keeley had questions about the potentially broad powers the SCPD would wield if the department determined suitable uses for the Flock system without oversight.  

Keeley also wanted to know whether the data could be accessed by the Department of Homeland Security. Escalante said that the current policy draft by the SCPD on the Flock system would be amended to state that the DHS will not have access to data stored in the system.

Still, Keeley felt the council needs more time to discuss the matter before the Dec. 31 application deadline for the grant needed to acquire the ALPR’s.

“My view is that as this sits here today, I can’t find my way to clear to vote for this. I think I might be able to on the 12th if we can continue this and we can in a more complete way, Chief, to  discuss potential amendments to your policy that you have here,” Keeley said. 

The matter is slated to continue at the Dec. 12 city council meeting. 

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