Police hope license plate scanner will help fight crime

November 30, 2010 7:14:05 PM PST
Technology which can read thousands of license plates in hours to find stolen or cars used in crimes is about to be deployed in East Palo Alto. Police say it helps reduce crime, but civil right advocates say it is another invasion of privacy.

The cases, which look like spotlights, are actually cameras. They are mounted on a vehicle, which police have asked ABC7 not to identify so as not to compromise its use. The cameras can scan license plates while the car is moving along in traffic and a side mounted camera can check plates in parking lots. The information is sent to a computer which compares the plates to a hot sheet of stolen cars or cars used in crimes.

East Palo Alto resident Peter Murray thinks he likes it.

"It's kinds scary in that they can find out allot of information very quickly; it would be a good tool too," he said.

"I believe on Sunday night we read 10,000 license plates in a 10 hour shift," Daly City police spokesperson Tony Baroni said.

"An officer on a good day can do 70 plates manually; this can do as many as there are cars," another officer said.

ABC7 also agreed not to identify the officer who sometimes uses the vehicle. It is the only one of its kind in San Mateo County. In January, East Palo Alto police will put their own on the street, thanks to a $37,000 grant from the Department of Justice. Police say stolen cars are a big problem in the city.

"To help us reduce auto thefts, recover stolen vehicles and also identify other vehicles that are associated with other crimes as well," East Palo Alto Police Capt. Carl Estelle said.

Privacy and civil rights advocates are concerned about the technology. They are worried about how long the police department will keep the data and what other possible uses they would have for it.

In a statement to ABC7, Nicole Ozer of the ACLU of Northern California said, "Innocent people should be able to go about their daily lives without being tracked and monitored. This is a 'needle in a haystack' approach that may waste money, invade privacy and invite unfair profiling."

Estelle says they will develop a use policy that will address privacy issues and the data will not be shared or used for other purposes.

"We want everybody to feel comfortable and confident that we are using this equipment properly," he said.


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