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The Menlo Park Police Department plans to equip three of its cars with mobile technology that scans and stores license-plate data as a way to identify vehicles that have been stolen or possibly involved in crimes.
The department also plans to install four cameras to monitor streets in Belle Haven, an eastern Menlo Park neighborhood where police are concerned about a rise in crime – prompting objections from some community leaders who say Belle Haven has been targeted unfairly. “We need to watch each other, but we don’t need cameras,” said Bishop Teman L. Bostic Sr., pastor of the Mt. Olive Apostolic Original Holy Church Of God. “There should be a rule for the whole city, not only one part.”
The City Council last month approved spending $127,682 to buy the cameras and the Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR) devices, which police Cmdr. Dave Bertini praised as “a great investigative tool.” Bertini said some residents of Belle Haven, frustrated by criminal activity, suggested the cameras. “Last year, there were numerous shootings … and people were very tense,” he said.
Although they voted 5-0 to authorize the license-plate readers, council members raised questions about how long the data would be stored and who would have access to it. Council members Ray Mueller and Kirsten Keith will work with City Attorney Bill McClure to draft guidelines before the cameras are turned on in late November.
An ALPR device photographs license plates within its vicinity. Each plate number is fed into a database, which local police use to compare with a “hot sheet” of stolen cars or those suspected of criminal activity, Bertini said. In addition, the data is uploaded to a server at the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, which is funded by federal, state and regional agencies including the Department of Homeland Security.
San Jose, East Palo Alto, San Francisco and Oakland are among a number of California cities where police use similar technology. Typically, the information is kept by the intelligence center for one year, but Menlo Park officials are debating whether to cut that down to six months.
“The one-year period is based on the California attorney general’s opinion,” said Bertini, who favors the longer approach. “Sometimes, we have an investigation and it can take months before we get the information that would lead us to go check vehicles.”
Mueller, however, believes one year is too long and said no one has convinced him why it’s considered “best practice.”
Hovering above Menlo Park’s debate is the national conversation over the role technology plays in tracking citizens’ daily activities, from how tech companies scoop up the web-surfing habits of consumers to the National Security Agency’s use of vast amounts of data. At the City Council meeting last month, Cherie Zaslawsky, a Menlo Park resident, said “government-sponsored surveillance has a pretty grim track record.“ She added: “Our police do a great job. Why don’t [we] let them do it without spying on our everyday lives?”
The American Civil Liberties Union released a 34-page report this summer that cast a critical eye on the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center. “License plate data are widely shared in California’s Bay Area through [the center], although the full extent of sharing is not publicly known,” the report stated.
Already, Menlo Park officers have access to license-plate information shared by police departments in other cities: more than 10 agencies in the region have signed contracts to share information through the intelligence center. Bertini said officers underwent training before being given access to the data and are aware that misuse of the information is a crime.
Police said there have been 38 shootings in Menlo Park between April 2011 and last month, the vast majority of them in or near Belle Haven. Those include three homicides and nine offenses registered as “attempted murder,” according to police.
Plans call for installing the four fixed cameras at entry points to the community, Bertini said, with the images stored for 90 days and only police officers having access.
In a recent interview, Bostic, whose mother founded the church he now leads, cautioned that the cameras could lead to racial profiling. More than half of Belle Haven residents are African-American, while Menlo Park overall is majority white. “Don’t segregate and put cameras on this side and think we are going to agree with that,” Bostic said.
Council member Mueller, while voting with all of his colleagues to authorize the cameras, raised a similar caution. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to say that it’s OK to fix cameras on one neighborhood because of the crime that happened there,” he said.
Bertini pointed out that technology can help make a community safer.
“We had a homicide last year, where we had a suspect vehicle description. If we had the cameras in place, we could have gone back to check the cameras and maybe we would have been able to see the suspect vehicle or even get a license plate,” he said. “Almost in every case we have a vehicle description or a suspect description.”
Map: Shootings in Menlo Park as registered and categorized by the police department in the last three years. Data provided by the Menlo Park Police Department.
Homepage image courtesy of Hub-Data 911.