SAN LEANDRO CITY COUNCIL//PRVACY | The use of license plate readers by police in the name of public protection has been debated before in San Leandro. Now, its police chief wants to install the controversial plate readers in two undisclosed locations around the city.

The City Council will begin discussion on whether to expand the use of Automated License Plate Readers on Tuesday night. It already uses one such device in a squad car and two in parking enforcement vehicles.

Use of the readers, first spotlighted by San Leandro school board member Mike Katz, attracted the attention of the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. Katz, also a likely candidate for the City Council next year, raised concerns the readers violate resident’s right to privacy. A protocol for how data is procured, stored and offered to residents who request video, is unclear, critics say.

San Leandro Police Chief Sandra Spagnoli says the use of cameras in public places have shown to be effective in lower crime. However, a citizen’s review board questioned the statement two months ago, citing numerous independent studies reporting the contrary.

In addition, a staff report from the police chief’s office, says there is no inherent right to privacy in public places and the use of security cameras can also be used in undercover investigations. Specific requests for the video can be obtained under the state public records act, the report says.

The debate of whether the use of security cameras by public law enforcement effectively fights crime or constitutes the opening act for further diluting of privacy rights gained national attention last July in Oakland. The approval by the Oakland City Council to further fund the Domain Awareness Center (DAC), a citywide surveillance hub, was not conceived to include neighboring cities. However there are signs neighboring cameras in Alameda County, not just in San Leandro, could be integrated into the center.

The proposal in Oakland last July included the potential for using cameras belonging to the California Highway Patrol, Caltrans and other statewide entities. In fact, the initial Homeland Security grant for the DAC in 2010 only included surveillance of the Port of Oakland, but was expanded earlier this year to include security cameras across the city of Oakland. 

There is also a connection between the DAC and San Leandro. The well-regarded Lit San Leandro project, a downtown San Leandro high-speed fiber optics partnership with data storage provider, OsiSoft, sought a contract last July to expand its offerings to Oakland. According to an Oakland staff report, the partnership would allow the DAC far greater capacity to crunch the astonishing amount of data it intends to capture from cameras all around Oakland.