BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) – Are they valuable law enforcement tools, invasions of our right to privacy, or both? Cities and counties across the country are weighing those considerations as a new tool becomes available: automatic license plate readers.
ALPRs, as they’re often called, are high-speed, high-resolution cameras that can be mounted on utility poles, streetlights, overpasses, or police cars to capture hundreds and sometimes thousands of plates a minute, instantaneously matching them against “hot lists” to identify suspects.
They’ve been useful fighting burglary and car theft and responding to Amber Alert child abductions.
And the Kern County Sheriff’s Department wants them. Or, at least, it wants to learn more about them.
On Tuesday the Sheriff’s department will ask the Kern County Board of Supervisors to approve the KCSO’s participation in a one year study of ALPRs’ value. Flock Group Inc., an Atlanta-based ALPR maker, will install 25 stationary plate readers around the county, free of change for one year. If after a year, the KCSO finds them sufficiently useful, the sheriff can come back to the Board and ask for funding – about $68,000 a year.
The Bakersfield Police Department already uses ALPRs – one mobile system and 21 fixed-location devices, with similar coverage placement to its ShotSpotter gunshot-reporting system. One private neighborhood, Old Stockdale, also has them. But two Kern County cities, citing privacy concerns, have rejected them – Delano and Wasco. Among the questions – how long may an agency store ALPR data, and can it share that data with other agencies?
Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood says it’s worth the obligation-free trial.
“The study will tell us whether they’re beneficial,” Youngblood said. “We’ll use our crime data to figure out the best places to put these in (and we will) make sure they’re on public property. They’ll record license plates – information we’ll keep for 30 days – (and then) it’s deleted. Any major crime, we can go back, look at the data, and there are agencies throughout the country that are having some pretty great successes with (it). You know, cameras are our world now.”
Bakersfield and Kern County are among the hardest-hit places in the country for stolen cars and statistics show license plate cameras greatly increase prompt recovery. They’ve proven useful in solving many crimes.
But do those benefits outweigh what critics say is a continuing descent into the surveillance state? Another skirmish in that battle plays out right here in Kern County this week.