Bridges up? Alameda is considering license plate readers at island’s entry points

Exit side of the Park Street Bridge leading from Alameda to Oakland.

Alameda elected officials backed early consideration for a proposal to could bring mounted automated license plate readers at entry and exits points around the island, including bridges, tunnels, and some intersections. Some Alameda police vehicles have been fitted with license plate readers since 2014.

Although the Alameda City Council’s vote Tuesday night was unanimously in forwarding Councilmember John Knox White referral to study mounted license plate readers, some official, however, voiced skepticism they actually prevent crime, along with several privacy concerns.

The idea of monitoring Alameda’s bridges and tunnels is wrought with ugly historical connotations going back generations to the days of the Alameda Naval Air Station, a time when the island was a conservative and military enclave and African Americans from nearby Oakland often faced harsh discrimination.

Despite the allusion to tracking the flow of outsiders coming into Alameda, no member of the council made a clear link during Tuesday’s hearing.

Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, who voiced the strongest support for license plate readers on Tuesday night, said residents worried about a perceived rise in crime are routinely asking her for license place readers. In particularly to stop rising incidents of packages being stolen from porches.

“We’re a very safe community, but there are folks who do some pretty horrendous things that pass through here. At the end of the day I think we all want a safe community,” Ashcraft said.

Councilmember Tony Daysog, the moderate-to-conservative voice of the council, said he supports funding license plate readers within the constraints of the city budget. He also noted its success in Piedmont. “It’s first and foremost a crime prevention tool in a time of great changes in the region and in Alameda. I think this is one way of making people safe and secure when they come into the city of Alameda.”

The Alameda Police Department had a similar proposal in February 2018 that included 13 mounted license plate readers at a cost of $500,000. The request came at a time when crime in Alameda was at a 30-year low.

But any support among the city council was quickly overshadowed by a news report just prior to the meeting that revealed that Vigilant Solutions, the city’s license plate reader vendor, had recently signed a contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Furthermore, Alameda had declared itself a sanctuary city a year before. Until this week, the license plate reader issue in Alameda had been shelved.

Knox White said he introduced the referral in an effort to restart the conversation of license plate readers and to “take the temperature of the council” on the issue, he said. He urged city staff to bring back information that focuses on data and not anecdotes about the success or risks of license-plate readers.

Councilmembers Jim Oddie and Malia Vella were apprehensive about the risks of collecting license plate data, in light of the Trump administration’s actions against some minority groups. “I think this is a tool that does have the potential to be abused,” Vella said.

“There’s a difference between driving around [with police vehicle-mounted license plate readers] and capturing the license plate of every single person who comes on and off the island. That’s the difference for me,” Oddie added. “There’s a value in solving crimes, but I don’t see how it prevents crimes.”

There was also worry among Oddie and Vella about the potential for data getting into the hands of people for self-interests. For example, to track people in cases of domestic violence. The data could also be used in divorce disputes, Oddie said, if the owner of the vehicle has a right to the information from license plate readers.