Victorville will have 50 special cameras that record license plates mounted throughout the city which officials say will aid police after a council decision Tuesday night.
The City Council voted 3-1, with Councilwoman Blanca Gomez voting no, to install the cameras known as Automated License Plate Readers, or ALPRs, at unidentified locations for a cost of roughly $612,000.
With the decision, 107 high-speed, computer-controlled cameras operated by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department will run at various intersections and traffic signals, almost triple the number neighboring Hesperia has.
Law enforcement and city officials have praised the cameras as a one-time expense that helps improve public safety and solve crime without more deputies.
Privacy advocates, such as the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, however, have characterized the systems as a “powerful surveillance technology that can be used to invade the privacy of individuals as well as to violate the rights of entire communities.”
City says ALPRs have been effective
The council first began discussing the use of an ALPR system in 2019 when members approved the yearly budget and allocated $450,000 for “traffic technology improvements.”
In April 2020, 37 cameras were greenlit using those funds. More than four months later in August, another 20 ALPRs were approved in a contract with Vigilant Solutions.
With its most recent purchase, Victorville has spent roughly $1.3 million on the system, according to city spokesperson Sue Jones.
The cameras work by automatically scanning and capturing all license plates that come into view, along with information about where the vehicle was spotted and the data and time.
Data can also include photos of the driver and passengers, the EFF wrote an explanation of the technology.
That data is then compared to a “hot list” of license plates law enforcement is looking for that could include stolen vehicles, an outstanding warrant, or if the vehicle is believed to be linked to a crime.
If there’s a “hit” or “tag,” the agency — in this case, the sheriff’s department that contracts with Victorville for police services — will be alerted.
According to the city, the system has resulted in 920 hits that have led to 213 arrests in one year starting from August 2020. Most of the people arrested, or 87%, were for auto theft or possession of a stolen vehicle.
On July 29, though, deputies detained two people who officials believe were linked to a burnt body found in a field earlier that month after cameras captured a vehicle connected to the crime.
“For many years, the citizens of Victorville have expressed their concerns about increasing crime in our City,” spokesperson Jones said. “ALPRs are a tool we are using to solve crime in Victorville, and they have been effective.”
Privacy concerns over camera system
Beryl Lipton, an investigative researcher at EFF, and her colleagues worry, however, about how the technology is used and the amount of information the cameras collect on drivers who aren’t suspected of crimes.
“Taken in the aggregate, ALPR data can paint an intimate portrait of a driver’s life and even chill First Amendment-protected activity. ALPR technology can be used to target drivers who visit sensitive places such as health centers, immigration clinics, gun shops, union halls, protests, or centers of religious worship,” the group has said.
Although she hasn’t studied Victorville specifically, Lipton said EFF’s data shows that the “vast majority of plates that are detected are not hits, compared to an actual list of cars that were involved in crimes.”
“Usually, that number is far less than 1% of the license plates that are actually read,” she said Wednesday. “So it sort of speaks to just the vast dragnet effect that ALPRs, in particular, have.”
Last month, the EFF and American Civil Liberties Union sued Marin County and its sheriff, Bob Doyle, alleging his agency shared “sensitive location information of millions of drivers with out-of-state and federal agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP)” in violation of a 2015 state law.
Victorville Mayor Pro Tem Leslie Irving referenced the lawsuit during Tuesday’s meeting when she asked whether the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s were sharing information with government agencies without notifying people.
Capt. John Wickum, head of the city’s sheriff’s station, said his department didn’t and only shared information with other law enforcement departments in the state.
According to the sheriff’s official ALPR policy, the camera data can only be shared with “law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies.”
Lipton said managing who sees the data could be difficult when using a third-party vendor like Vigilant Solutions who has clients across the country. She compared it to a Google Drive account and someone forgetting about what sharing permissions they have on.
“It’s hard to keep a lock on this sort of thing,” she said.
Daily Press reporter Martin Estacio may be reached at 760-955-5358 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @DP_mestacio.