Governor Pushing License Plate Readers, but Activists Say Data Doesn’t Support Their Use as Crime Fighting Tools

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Oakland, CA – Last week Governor Newsom announced California is installing a network of 480 high-tech cameras in Oakland and the East Bay to “aid law enforcement in identifying vehicles linked to crimes using real-time information and alerts.”

However, groups like the Anti Police-Terror Project have come out against the proposal.

“It’s not going to do anything to solve crime,” Cat Brooks, the co founder and Executive Director of the Anti Police-Terror Project told the Vanguard in a phone interview this week.  “So if the assertion is that this is a public safety issue, that this is going to turn things around, it’s a false assertion and there’s no data to back it up.”

She said, “There is data to back up that these cameras cause all sorts of problems for folks in low-income, communities of color.”

Instead, this data also ends up in ICE causing problems for undocumented or potentially undocumented individuals.

In addition, Brooks pointed out that often the police end up pulling over the wrong people.

She said the police end up “pulling over people that law enforcement thinks that they’re the person that did whatever they think happened – and it turns out to be the wrong individual.”

Those people end up with the trauma of being assaulted by law enforcement.

The risk of false arrest based on mistaken identity is not theoretical.

Cat Brooks cited the case of Brian Hofer, the chair of the Privacy Commission, saying that they were driving home on Thanksgiving when the license plate on the car triggered a license plate reader which initiated an arrest.

“They were brutalized and had guns pointed at their face,” she said.  “That’s not an exception to rule – this happens all the time.”

She said part of the problem with policing in America is “the way we do policing in America.”

She said she has stared down the barrel of gun “and it’s not something that you walk away from unscathed.”

The Vanguard talked to Brian Hofer about this incident, which occurred in Thanksgiving 2018, “We had four guns pointed at our head after Thanksgiving in 2018 when a license plate reader said that we basically stole our own car and just the plate had been put on a hot list by mistake.”

He said one of the problems is in addition to human error, the scanners themselves have up to a 35 percent error rate.

“We got lucky, my brother and I, we didn’t go to jail,” he said.  “But we might have.  Or been shot.”

He said the number of horror stories he’s heard is sobering.

“The risk of false arrest or violence at the end of the police” he said is really high.

And the upside is low.

“I just know statistically they’re not very effective at crime fighting,” he said.  “The hit rate for the last 10 years has been 0.01 percent.  That’s just an alert that they’re a likely match.  That’s not actually the recovery of a stolen vehicle or an arrest or an at-risk locate.”

Given that, Hofer said, “It’s just not a magic silver bullet that’s coming to the people.”

Another concern is the budget.

In a statement last week, Brooks expressed concern that money going to surveillance is not going to other needs.

She said, “For every dollar we spend on surveillance cameras, that’s a dollar not spent on proven public safety strategies.”

She continued, “We are concerned by both a state and city in massive budget deficits and the largest homeless population in our city and across the country. When we decide to deploy 480 new cameras we should be asking how many people could be housed with the money we spend on this, how many people could be trained to do living wage jobs.”

In the phone interview, Brooks noted, “The city of Oakland and the state of California are in a fiscal deficit. So we get one shot really at this apple, right, to turns things around, to address the conditions that have been brought upon us by the economic pandemic, that came out on the heels of the corona virus pandemic and we’re wasting money.

“We could use this money to house people, to treat people’s addictions. And I don’t mean through carceral programs like Proposition 1, I mean actual holistic treatment to improve our schools, to pave our roads, clean our parks to build low income, no cost, low cost housing, things that the data say actually keeps us safe.”

Brooks expressed concern that even in progressive cities like Oakland, elected officials are bowing to right wing pressure to pull people to the right using fear of crime.

“We saw in the eighties and nineties as well, where we did similar things, we funneled thousands and thousands of dollars in the jails. And not only did our communities not get any safer, but one of the key indicators of safe communities are unhealthy families and we ripped families apart,” Brooks explained.

She said, “Our communities have not recovered from the damage done in the Three Strikes Law or the 1994 crime bill. And here we are again on a repeat.

As far as the governor is concerned, Brooks believes that “he’s gearing up to run for president.”

But, moreover, “We’ve seen him walk back on a lot of the promises he made about reformation of the criminal legal system.”

The movement back on criminal justice reform is causing Brooks a lot of concern.

“I see a risk big enough that makes me cry at least twice a week,” she said.  “It’s not going work.  And so for the crime that is happening, that’s going to continue which means black and brown people are going to continue to live under siege.”

She pointed out “that when we incarcerate people, we’re not just incarcerating the incarcerated people, we’re incarcerating their children.”

She said, “That has lifelong impact – and again, there’s nothing to make us safer.”

For Brian Hofer, he has concerns about the lack of communication on the part of governor’s office.

“The confusion and the lack of communication is not really inspiring,” he said.  “I just fundamentally oppose mass surveillance.  So the way we use license plate readers today primarily is just a big dragnet. Every license plate in view gets collected and retained and put into a criminal database.”

He said that, as a country, “we’ve never had that conversation and consented to it.”

He did say they are going to incorporate “some of the guardrails they’ve supported and have a shorter retention period.”

Moreover, he pointed out that the “number of cameras is really out of proportion for a city of this size – both population and geography.”

He said that “we’re really going to be saturating some areas with this number of cameras. And since we usually put cameras around minority neighborhoods, I do think that we’re increasing the likelihood of a disparate impact and we’re definitely increasing the risk of a data hygiene error, which is really not being talked about at all.”

In Oakland he said they currently have 40 cameras for the system they just abandoned.

“We’re now going to have 480, and that amount of data is definitely going to contain some inaccuracies and potentially somebody with a gun, it’s going to wind up in your face,” he said.  “That increases personal safety risk quite a bit.”

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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