Oakland privacy commission backs use of new ALPR system

The City of Oakland Police Station at 455 7th Street in Oakland, Calif. on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (Keith Burbank/Bay City News)

A key Oakland commission on Thursday recommended that the city adopt a new automatic license plate reader policy allowing roughly 300 new cameras to be installed throughout the city. The Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission voted to forward the policy to the City Council for approval. If approved, it would allow the Oakland Police Department to contract with a private company, Atlanta-based Flock Safety, to install the cameras in “hot spots identified by OPD,” said Deputy City Administrator Joe DeVries, who serves as the city’s chief privacy officer.

The new policy would also limit data retention in the new system to 30 days, DeVries said. The upgrade will enhance OPD’s crime fighting capabilities as well as the department’s ability to track, audit and report on the system’s use and effectiveness, he said.

According to the proposal, the Flock Safety system would cost a little more than $1 million for the first year of the three-year contract and $900,000 in each of the following two years. It would replace an existing automatic license plate reader system that was installed on 30 or so marked police vehicles but is no longer operational, according to an OPD report from June.

The report also notes that the current system is outdated and its software is no longer supported by the original vendor. Proponents, including Mayor Sheng Thao, say the new, modern system is necessary to fight the city’s rising crime rates.

“Automated License Plate Readers enhance the Oakland Police Department’s ability to collect evidence more quickly, pinpoint leads and identify vehicles, even those with stolen plates,” Thao said in a news release Friday. She said the new policy balances the need for increased police capabilities with privacy protections. Thao announced in August that she had secured $1.2 million in state funding for the new system.

Cat Brooks and James Burch of the Anti Police-Terror Project released a statement Friday criticizing the commission’s recommendation and calling the use of automatic license plate readers invasive and ineffective.

“ALPR’s capture an intrusive amount of personal data, disproportionately surveilling low income Black and brown communities while consistently proving to be ineffective at preventing or solving crime,” Brooks and Burch said.

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