Civil grand jury questions if OPD can accommodate new license plate readers

When Gov. Gavin Newsom announced earlier this year that the California Highway Patrol would install almost 300 new license plate readers in Oakland, it was the end of a roundabout process to fund, approve and implement the cameras. But the effect was the same: Oakland would expand its number of license plate readers nearly ten-fold. 

But that increase in the number of cameras won't be joined by an increase in the number of Oakland Police Department officers, and the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury released a report questioning whether the department can accommodate the new cameras. 

"OPD is unlikely to respond to more than a small percentage of (license plate reader) notifications," the report said. 

Endorsed by Mayor Sheng Thao, the license plate readers got committee approval in October. The cameras take snapshots of a vehicle's license plates and compare them to a list of vehicles linked to serious crimes, alerting OPD if there is a match. They were to replace OPD's existing 30 plate readers, which were no longer operational after their software had become outdated.  

But for months, the grand jury couldn't find evidence that Oakland signed a contract to operate these new cameras. Then, in late March, Newsom announced that the CHP would install 290 cameras in the city. 

"This investment marks another step forward in our commitment to bolstering public safety and tackling organized crime and roadway violence in Oakland and across California," Newsom said at the time. 

But the civil grand jury, a group of civilians who audit government practices, said that responding to alerts from all of these cameras might be too tall a task for Oakland police. The cameras, the jury's report said, might generate dozens of alerts, each needing an officer to respond.

It's a similar problem for police as ShotSpotter, an audio-based system that detects gunshots. The jury found that OPD receives an average of 11 alerts per day from ShotSpotter, but OPD officers can't respond to all of them. Considering this, the jury said that police are not prepared to respond to additional alerts generated from license plate readers, which could potentially total over 100 alerts in a day. 


More license plate readers are coming to Bay Area, but do they work?

Cities around the Bay Area are lining up to get automated license plate readers, but the data shows mixed results at best.

OPD is not likely to see an increase in manpower available to address these alerts, either. Oakland is in the final stages of passing a budget that could include funding cuts to OPD. The city is considering proposals to reduce police staffing to as few as 600 officers, well below the minimum staffing level of 678 officers mandated as part of Measure Z, implemented in 2014. 

"If city leaders truly value public safety, we need to make serious considerations about adequately staffing the Oakland Police Department," police union president Huy Nguyen said last month. 

Currently, OPD employs a sort of patchwork system to address ShotSpotter alerts, the grand jury report said. According to an OPD witness included in the report, officers respond to alerts if they are "nearby and available." 

"There are no set procedures to determine when to respond to ShotSpotter notifications," the report said. 

The report speculates that this approach might violate Oakland city code, which prohibits a "viewpoint-based" process when employing technology. Without a formal procedure to respond to alerts, OPD runs the risk of prioritizing reports according to officers' biases, the report suggests. 

The grand jury had similar concerns about license plate readers, too.

 "(License plate readers) will generate a much greater volume of notifications than ShotSpotter, exacerbating the problem of intentional or inadvertent bias," its report reads. 

Questions over the viability of license plate readers were just one part of the grand jury's concerns over OPD's use of technology. Its report argued that the department routinely installed ineffective and soon-to-be outdated technologies. 

The report also argued that OPD lacked a broad strategy for implementing police technology, finding just two passages regarding technology in the department's strategic plan for 2021-2024. 

"The City of Oakland appreciates the Alameda County Grand Jury's attention to these important matters," OPD said in a statement Tuesday. "The City is reviewing the report and will follow up with the Grand Jury as appropriate." 

However, the grand jury didn't entirely place blame on the Police Department. It also criticized an approval process, which involves permission from both the City Council and the city's Privacy Advisory Commission, for delaying tech projects until they became outdated. 

"The grand jury studied numerous technologies introduced by OPD over the last decade and found a string of poor choices in choosing technology, poor implementation of promising technologies, poor maintenance and updating, and an overall lack of strategic vision," the report said.