Opinion: Berkeley is being bamboozled by the way the city uses license plate readers

When the City Council approved an expansion of the program in 2017, members were assured they would only be used for traffic-related purposes. A new measure allows police to use them in criminal investigations.

It started with the simple premise of saving money, lessening injury to city workers, and making it easier to park on our streets.

What it has turned into is carte blanche for the Berkeley police to surveil us through our cars’ license plates whenever and wherever they want to.

On July 11th, 2017, the City Council approved the acquisition of fifteen additional Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs), transforming a pilot program of five ALPRs into a city-wide program.

In testimony that day, staff emphasized that this was exclusively a parking enforcement and parking data acquisition system. The staffer who made the presentation to Council said:

“Our goal is to provide improved parking and parking services.”

                 “ALPR is a replacement for chalking tires.”

                  “The intent is to make the parking system work better for our residents.”

and the description of the item on the agenda read:

“Purchase fifteen additional Automated License Plate Recognition units to increase parking enforcement operations capacity and effectiveness.”

The advantages of the system touted were relieving workers from having to manually chalk tires, being able to cover more area in less time, and making sure that parking limits were enforced so that new arrivals could find parking spaces.

Nowhere in any of the documents, nor in any of the discussion that day, was there reference to using these devices for criminal investigations or other law enforcement purposes.

In fact, the money used to purchase the equipment came from a pool of federal dollars for use solely for parking-related issues. As the city staffer said on July 11th to the Council:

“The money generated is from a Federal grant. Under the terms of that grant, we can only use it for pre-approved parking-related activities or we have to return it to the FHA.”

Then-City Councilman Kriss Worthington dismissed concerns raised by City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn about “leaks” in the existing guidelines, as well as other concerns about additional surveillance:

“Berkeley is going to have a very, very, strong surveillance policy… We are going to have a great surveillance policy. So I don’t think there’s any reason to think that this is going to be used in nefarious ways,” said Worthington.

Well, Berkeley now has a surveillance ordinance, passed in March 2018. That ordinance required that the Berkeley City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley bring to the Council a use policy laying out acceptable and unacceptable uses of license plate reader technology and the data it collects by Nov. 2018.

No such policy was brought. Only after the ACLU and Oakland Privacy sent letters that threatened legal action was the process even begun, so that now – a year later – a proposed use policy for ALPR technology has finally been brought before the City Council.

Worthington’s statement notwithstanding, city staff wrote the proposed ALPR policy ignoring the July 11th, 2017 discussion. In fact, there is a very good reason to be worried about the use of these devices:

Instead of restricting ALPR use to parking enforcement department of the Berkeley police department, ALPRs can, according to the proposed policy, also be used:

“for official law enforcement business.”

Which means they can be used for essentially any purpose – certainly things that go far and away beyond parking enforcement. The policy continues…

“An ALPR may be used to support a patrol operation or criminal investigation… an ALPR may be used to canvass license plates around any crime scene…”

Neither a patrol operation nor a crime scene has anything to do with parking enforcement.

But more than that, by not specifically disallowing any uses, this proposed policy gives the Berkeley Police carte blanche to mount ALPRs on patrol cars and drive around everywhere in Berkeley or to use them at fixed locations monitoring everyone who goes by.

Nor does the policy forbid them from “ALPR’ing” cars parked in private driveways, parking garages or, say, repeatedly canvassing the parking lot of a community center, business establishment or place of worship.

As Hahn so aptly put in during the 2017 Council meeting:

                  “Never before have we had the capacity to vacuum up this kind of data. This changes things.”

Indeed it does. Which is why the City Council should reject this policy when it comes before it on November 12. They and the people of this city were bamboozled – we were sold a bill of goods. If the Council had wanted the Berkeley Police Department to be given the unlimited right to scan the city’s license plates using ALPRs they would have said so two years ago. They did not.

The Council must reject any use of ALPR technology other than for parking enforcement, and insist that this prohibition be written into the policy. They and the people of Berkeley have a chance to stop this. They should. And they must.

JP Massar is a Berkeley activist who participated in the creation of Berkeley’s surveillance regulation ordinance and the fight against facial recognition.