Berkeley City Council voted in favor of allowing the Berkeley Police Department to adopt Automated License Plate Readers, or ALPRs, to help combat crime in the city in a controversial decision at its regular meeting June 25.
The ALPRs will be placed in 52 locations throughout the city as part of a two-year pilot program. Following the conclusion of the two-year period, the data collected by the ALPRs will be evaluated to determine whether or not they proved to be successful.
Although the proposal passed with a majority in the council, city residents, organizations and Councilmember Ben Bartlett — who was the sole dissenter — were not convinced.
Bartlett opposed the proposal citing the ongoing “Text Gate” scandal within BPD. Bartlett alleged BPD has an issue with racism and should not have their power expanded — a sentiment expressed by many of the night’s public commenters.
Many of the concerns cited the potential for civil liberties violations.
“Police tend to deploy these technologies in poor and historically overpoliced areas, regardless of crime rate,” said Nick Hidalgo, a staff attorney on the technology and civil liberties team at the ACLU of Northern California.
The ACLU outlined its concerns in a letter addressed to the city council June 18. The organization also objected to the proposal during the meeting’s public comment period.
BPD hopes to implement the program in the fall. However, the specific locations of the cameras have yet to be disclosed to the public.
The Police Accountability Board, or PAB, said during the meeting that “several drafting improvements” were needed to “ensure the clarity, accuracy and alignment with relevant regulations and community expectations.” The PAB also criticized the acquisition report’s failure to thoroughly evaluate alternatives to ALPR technology and provide the metrics for assessing its impact.
The adoption of ALPRs has raised many concerns about civilian privacy. However, BPD said the cameras will be strictly fixed on locations, not people.
Councilmember Rigel Robinson, who voted in favor of the proposal, acknowledged the privacy concerns. However, he said the surveillance use policy adopted alongside the ALPRs will prevent this.
“Privacy concerns about technology are not hypothetical at all, they present serious risks, and require strict local policies,” Robinson said in an email. “That’s why we adopted a surveillance use policy for our automated license plate readers with narrow allowable uses for public safety purposes and clear consequences for misuse.”
Robinson noted that violent crimes and armed robberies in the city are often committed using stolen getaway cars. According to Robinson, being able to identify stolen vehicles or vehicles that have been recently associated with a crime is an important tool to help prevent crime and violence in the city.
Whether or not these cameras will have any substantive impact on crime rates in Berkeley is yet to be seen.
Among the public commenters in favor of adopting ALPR technology were parents of incoming freshmen at UC Berkeley. However, the current students present at the meeting were staunchly opposed to the proposal.
ALPR technology has been at the forefront of national conversations regarding privacy and the limits of law enforcement.
Following the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and the ensuing attack on reproductive rights nationwide, policymakers and civilians alike have expressed fears that information obtained by ALPRs will be used to prosecute individuals seeking reproductive care across state lines.
However, as per SB 34, it is illegal for any agency to share ALPR data with any out-of-state agencies. In 2021, the ACLU successfully sued the Marin County Sheriff for violating SB 34 and sharing data across state lines.
There have also been instances of ALPR technology being used to disproportionately monitor Muslim Americans and LGBTQ+ and undocumented individuals, according to Hidalgo.
Hidalgo also recounted a case of mistaken identity due to information obtained by ALPR technology that led to the wrongful detention of a Black woman at gunpoint, resulting in a yearslong lawsuit.
“The mere collection of all of this information is an incredibly powerful tool that can be misused by other parties,” Hidalgo said. “We think it’s rife with misuse and so we are against the use of this surveillance technology.”
Matt Brown also contributed to this report.