Saratoga to install license plate readers to combat crime

Fear of rising crime in surrounding cities is prompting Saratoga city officials to turn to technology. They plan to use license plate reading surveillance cameras to monitor who comes into their city.

After balancing the need for more housing, the next pressing question facing Saratoga residents is security.

Some residents said in recent years, crime has soared.

"There were car break-ins. There was like, people breaking into the homes," said Ruti Sharma. "There were break-ins every other week. But that was five years ago."

In response, some residents in subdivisions installed neighborhood watch cameras. The move has apparently reduced criminal activity.

City leaders plan to do the same on a larger scale.

"We are always looking to improve safety in our city," said Saratoga Mayor Tina Walia.

If a memorandum of understanding (MOU) is approved by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors Tuesday, Saratoga will install seven surveillance cameras by this Summer. The cameras will be placed at seven key entry points to the city. They will be equipped with license plate readers that can alert sheriff’s deputies to stolen vehicles or outstanding warrants.

"There’s some value to having these and advertising them and kind of displaying that your plates being captured. Which will have a crime preventative role," said Lisa Dadio, director of the Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven.

Mayor Walia said she can see a benefit of having the cameras in the fight against crime.

"ARP cameras can assist law enforcement in solving crimes, or maybe even preventing additional crimes. And that was the main goal," she said.

Critics are worried capturing personal information from license plates could be a violation of civil rights.

"When you start going and taking that information and running it against ta database, where you are  checking to see who’s the driver of that car to see if there are any concerns for other reasons for that, then that raises big legal questions," said Prof. Kenneth Gray, of the Univ. of New Haven Dept. of Criminal Justice.

City officials said use of the cameras will comply with all applicable laws.

Some residents welcome seven additional watchful eyes from Big Brother.

"You’re going to have something that will capture the information who’s coming who’s not, it’s going to the next level. And that would be good," said Sharma.

The pilot program will last one year. Then council members will get a report looking at factors such as numbers of recovered stolen vehicles, and changes to the overall crime rate to determine if the program becomes permanent or is scrapped.