New East Palo Alto license plate readers will run plates through crime databases

East Palo Alto police plan to install automatic license plate readers in two patrol cars by January. The devices can scan license numbers in a given radius and check the information against crime databases. (Photo courtesy Hub-Data 911)

By the new year, the East Palo Alto Police Department will be using automatic license plate readers to identify law breakers.

The City Council has agreed to pay for the new devices – including two sets of high-speed cameras and sophisticated computers – with a $37,540 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Police can use the technology to compare license plates with various crime databases. East Palo Alto Police Chief Ronald Davis said his department will only use it to check for stolen cars and vehicles that are wanted in connection with a crime.

The car-mounted devices can automatically scan all vehicles’ plates  within a certain radius of the patrol car, run the information through pre-selected databases and report back immediately to officers if a car is stolen or wanted, according to the East Palo Alto police department. Last year, East Palo Alto tested a license plate reader owned by the San Mateo Sheriff’s Office. Davis said the results were positive.

East Palo Alto has been on a campaign with police-surveillance technology for the past five years. In 2009, the city became the first in the nation to install citywide gunshot detectors. The police department also equipped all of its patrol cars with video cameras.

Outside East Palo, other police agencies are using stationary video cameras to catch drivers who speed and drive through red lights.

Police surveillance systems can be controversial. Advocates say they help solve crimes and make people feel safer, especially when residents know the devices are present. Critics worry about invasions of privacy. Most companies that sell traffic cameras and license plate readers recommend that governments advertise the installment of their systems.

A 2009 report from the East Palo Alto police department said the city’s gunshot detectors identified 831 shots, led to 14 arrests and aided in recovering 13 firearms from January 2008 through April 2009.  Davis said his department is working on a report for 2010.

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