City of Alameda approves funding controversial license plate readers but holds off on their use

The Alameda City Council is poised to vote Tuesday night on whether to scan the license plates of every car that enters and leaves the island, a small enclave that touches the larger, and more crime-ridden, city of Oakland.

The Alameda City Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to approve paying for controversial license plate readers and set aside $500,000 for technology equipment.

But before the cameras will be bought, the council also voted unanimously to direct the Alameda Police Department and the City Attorney’s Office to update the existing policy on Automated License Plate Readers and bring back details of how the information will be used and who will get to see it.

Police Chief Paul Rolleri told the council that he wants to use this strategy to crack down on car break ins and property crimes, as well as speed up time-consuming police work. The surveillance tool also has privacy advocates crying foul, and worrying about ICE agents who might want to deport people, though the chief vowed he wouldn't share the information with that agency.

The 13 license plate recognition systems will be installed on Park Street as well as the Fruitvale and High Street bridges, Doolittle Drive, Harbor bay and Ron Cowan parkways, and the Webster and Posey Tubes. The police department already uses four such license plate readers on their patrol cars.

The devices create records of when vehicles come and go, while immediately flagging stolen and wanted vehicles.  This comes at a time when Livermore-based Vigilant Solutions reportedly entered a contract to provide license plate data to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. 

Piedmont started using license plate readers in 2013 and the police chief there told the Chronicle that property crime has dropped by 34 percent.

But Brian Hofer, chair of the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission, told the San FranciscoChronicle that he was concerned that Alameda was seeking to put up a virtual border wall.

“They’re scared of Oakland,” Hofer told the Chronicle. “Alameda’s had that history, and that’s playing out. ... That’s not to discount that crime does occur, but there’s definitely this fear of Oakland that’s ridiculously frustrating to me.”

Alameda resident Ronald Abbott told KTVU this week that he sees both sides of the issue: The readers could indeed be "misused" to keep track of people, he noted, especially if someone is simply "pissed off" with somebody else and wants police to track the whereabouts of that person.

Still, he said, "Alameda is a nice place and I'd like to keep in that way."