Berkeley council will vote on expanding license plate readers

The Berkeley City Council will decide on a proposal to install 52 license plate reader cameras on streetlights and roads throughout the city. Berkeley police said the plan, if approved, would help them tackle car thefts and other criminal activities.

The license plate readers scan the license plates of every vehicle that passes by. If the plate is registered to a stolen vehicle, or connected to another, serious crime, it will instantly alert police. The idea is that police could then promptly intercept and stop the vehicle.

"This is one of the single most useful tools we can use," said Sgt. Joseph Ledoux from the Berkeley Police Department. "We're being told when a stolen vehicle is coming and also the direction they're traveling."

At the City Council meeting Tuesday night, leaders will decide whether to implement a two-year trial with 52 fixed license plate readers across Berkeley.

To support their case, Berkeley Police cited a report that said the city of Vacaville reported at 30 percent decline in auto theft after deploying similar cameras.

Berkeley Police Accountability Board expressed concerns about the limitations of that study, and the cameras’ effectiveness. They also cited public concerns about privacy and potential civil liberties violations.

"We need to look at alternatives beyond surveillance of the community to be able to address some of the crime problems," said Hansel Aguilar, Director of the City of Berkeley’s Police Accountability Board. "There's more research that needs to be done to truly make the argument it will reduce crime as intended."

The board plans to recommend that the City Council abstain from adopting the proposal until more conclusive studies are available. Their recommendation is not binding, and councilmembers can decide to approve the proposal without the civilian oversight group’s support.

Car thefts have become a pressing concern for Berkeley police, who currently face staffing shortages. According to Berkeley’s Crime database, the city has had a 67 percent increase in auto thefts from the previous year. There have been 730 vehicles reported stolen from the City of Berkeley so far this year, at a rate of about four car thefts per day.  

Berkeley police currently use mobile license plate readers attached to patrol cars for parking enforcement. But tonight’s proposal would allow the city to install fixed cameras at strategic locations in and out of the city. The exact locations have not been determined yet.

The City of Piedmont also has 34 mounted cameras at entry points throughout the city, which is completely surrounded by the City of Oakland. They’ve had those cameras for about a decade, and Berkeley intends to use the same vendor as Piedmont.

It would cost $250,000 to set up the 52 cameras, and about $175,000 a year in subscription costs to a private vendor to operate the system.

The proposal is item number 38 on the City Council agenda. Their meeting starts Tuesday at 6 p.m.