San Jose mayor touts automated license plate readers' success though police don't track the data

New automated license plate readers are being installed in San Jose to fight crime, despite the fact that the city has not historically tracked whether they have led to any arrests. 

Mayor Matt Mahan posted video on social media this week showing how he helped work crews install San Jose's 108th automatic license plate reader.

Mentioning some anecdotal successes, Mahan said high-speed camera technology has helped solve several crimes, including robberies, hit-and-runs, home invasions and stolen car cases.

In addition, San Jose recently launched a retail theft unit where five officers will use the automated license plate reader cameras in 76 strategic locations to track the most popular escape routes from the city. 

San Jose is joining other cities, such as Oakland and San Francisco, in spending money on automated license plate readers, known by their acronym of ALPR, which are cameras that scan license plates and take pictures of the rear plate and the rear part of the car.

They can be attached to patrol cars and move around the city. Or, they can be stationary, if they are fixed to a light pole or traffic light. 

The technology can only determine if the plate is stolen or wanted; the cameras do not take pictures of people's faces. 

 KTVU surveyed several cities, big and small, who use the cameras and found very few actually use data to make their case.

For example, the city of Piedmont tracks how many arrests police make thanks to the camera technology but the town of Tiburon does not. 

KTVU asked San Jose to provide the arrest and clearance rate data stemming from the use of its 11 mobile automated license plate readers installed since 2013. But the department was "unable to query this data," according to an email from the police department's research and development unit. 

KTVU's investigation also found: 

  • Oakland police have had automated license plate readers on 36 patrol cars since 2008 and acknowledged that they got no investigative leads from the license plate readers in 2022, according to the most recent annual report. In that same time period, 34 stolen cars were recovered but no arrests were made.
  • Vallejo has been using the license plate readers since November 2021 and has recovered 113 cars and made 116 arrests directly as a result of the technology, the police department's website said.BART launched a pilot program of license plate readers - 7 mobile and 2 fixed – at the MacArthur BART parking garage in May. The goal was to catch people breaking into cars and stealing catalytic converters. To date, no arrests have been made. However, BART noted in its annual report that 288 parking citations have been handed out during the pilot phase.
  • San Leandro’s Public Safety camera program has only been in place since this year so there is no historical data. The police department is approved for 43 total cameras with installations nearing completion.
  • Berkeley has been approved to buy 52 fixed automated license plate readers at a startup cost of $250,000 and an annual fee of $175,000, but the cameras have yet to be installed. Therefore, there is no data to support the system's effectiveness.
  • Piedmont police have arrested 248 people – about 27 people a year – directly related to the help of the automated license plate readers installed in 2014. In that same time period, 375 stolen cars were recovered, also with the help of the readers.

Piedmont Police Chief Jeremy Bowers told KTVU that the license plate reader system works relatively well in his city because of several complementary components: The city has one fixed surveillance camera, which captures movements of people in the city and works in conjunction with the license plate readers. Officers have the ability to respond to stolen car hits in real time. 

And it also helps that Piedmont is a tiny, affluent city of 11,000 residents that hasn't had a homicide since July 1999.

Piedmont is blessed with these fortunes, Bowers acknowledged, which other, larger cities are not.

"We're small, but we're fully staffed," Bowers said in a recent interview. "The volume is manageable where we can drive resources to…locate that vehicle."