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License plate readers help recover stolen cars, stir controversy

on October 28, 2013

The Richmond Police Department photographs about 44,000 license plates every day. By next summer RPD will  have 16 million photos stockpiled. If you regularly drive through the city, your car will likely be in this sprawling database, because it’s impossible to avoid it.

RPD is storing commuter’s auto information to try and recover stolen vehicles.

Last May, RPD purchased four license plate readers that are attached to the front of patrol vehicles and can photograph and store roughly eight plates per minute. When a hot car is scanned, police are alerted. “It lets officers do what they would normally be doing on patrol, but much more efficiently,” RPD Captain Anthony Williams said.

So far this year, no fewer than 1,000 cars have been stolen in the city—23 percent fewer than last year, but still far too many, RPD Captain Mark Gagan said.  “This is a regional problem of epidemic proportions.”

The department is spending nearly $90,000 a year for the license plate readers, but police say it’s worth the investment. Last March, the technology helped the department find 16 stolen vehicles and make one arrest. Similar operations are conducted each month with equally productive results, Gagan said.

While the police praise the technology, it has elicited strong opposition from civil liberties groups and some residents who complain it jeopardizes people’s privacy. “The data is a temptation,” said Chris Connoly, a technology attorney with the ACLU. “All sorts of sensitive and personal information is being collected, and there is no such thing as a perfect security system.”

License plate scanners are just one of many crime-fighting gadgets RPD has purchased in recent years.  The department has Shot Spotter, which gives officers the precise location of gunshots; Predictive Policing, which forecasts when and where certain property crimes are most likely to occur; and closed-circuit TV cameras scattered throughout the city.

While RPD partially credits technological tools for steep reductions in crime, some residents are concerned about the widespread surveillance. “People think that it’s very ‘big brother,’” Gagan said. “And I understand that, but I believe that in order to be effective and progressive in police work, you have to keep current on technology.”

Ellen Seskin has lived in Richmond for 29 years. She hasn’t always thought highly of the police department.  Her son, who is bi-racial, has been harassed by officers and the department hasn’t always been transparent, she said. “I haven’t always felt that I could trust the police.”

Since Chris Magnus took the helm as chief, she said her misgivings have lessened. “I’ve gotten to know some of the officers and I’ve gotten to know the chief and everyone I’ve met from the force has been very straightforward, honest, and fair,” she said.

Seksin is unconcerned that RPD can track the movements of virtually every motorist in the city.  It’s kind of like people who aren’t totally against gun control but aren’t pro gun,” Seskin said. “It’s not the gun they’re against. It really depends on whose hand it’s in. I feel the same way about this technology.”

Still, the scale and scope of license plate scanners makes others uneasy. “It becomes a really intrusive way of tracking individuals,” Connoly said. “Having a police force that’s really engaged in the community is certainly a good thing,” but Connoly warned,  “of course, the police department will change over time.”

RPD says it will only share information from the readers with the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office and the Sacramento Sheriff’s Office, both of which regularly recover stolen vehicles from Richmond. Many other police departments store photos from license plate readers in “fusion centers,” which are centralized databases that allow scores of police agencies to share information.

In 2012 the U.S. Senate concluded that fusion centers tend to be mismanaged. The ACLU has accused them of being Orwellian. “[License plate reading] technology should be used to accomplish specific law enforcement goals, not deployed as a tool for dragnet surveillance,” the ACLU wrote in a 2012 report.

The RPD plans to store license plate data for at least one year. The Tiburon police department stores data for 30 days; other departments store it indefinitely.

Considering the recent uproar about the scope and scale of state surveillance, this practice has some residents worried. “If it’s someone they’re watching in particular, or that they suspect is breaking the law, sure,” long-time resident Seskin said. “But if someone doesn’t raise any red flags, I don’t see why they need to store it for so long.”

Department officials said they are storing photos for one year because the practice allows them to use the data as an investigative tool. If police know the license plate number of a suspected criminal, they can scour the system and possibly track his or her movements. “That gives us a huge leap ahead in our investigation,” Captain Williams said.

Nevertheless, such data can also result in a “really rich profile of [innocent] people’s habits. Where they go regularly, how often they show up at a particular place,” Connoly said.

RPD is aware that some people are uncomfortable about license plate readers. “We’ve heard people voice similar concerns about the majority of the technological advancements we’ve made,” Captain Gagan said, “and we take ample precautions to ensure that people’s civil liberties are protected.”


  1. Kennedy Grad on October 28, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    Thank you RPD, great work!!!

    In my opinion, even more license plate scanners are needed. Criminals often steal vehicles in order to use them to commit other crimes, hence using license plate scanners to find stolen vehicles has a major effect of reducing other types of crime as well.

  2. Carey on October 29, 2013 at 7:47 am

    The $90k cost is a pittance compared with the leg work that would otherwise be required. I suspect such programs will reduce auto theft, and our insurance rates as well.

  3. Gene Fleming on October 29, 2013 at 7:50 am

    Driving a car is not mandatory. No other form of transportation allows anonymity while in the public domain. Ride the train, bus, or taxi and “smile you’re on camera!” And for good reason. Recording license plate information not only helps recover stolen cars, but could also help solve other crimes quickly.

  4. Cochise Potts on October 29, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    What I don’t understand is if the car is not stolen why keep that info in their database. Seems to me this info is going to be used for other purposes besides validating if a vehicle is stolen or not…

    • Chris Magnus on October 29, 2013 at 9:25 pm

      Yes, Mr. Potts, it might be. Being able to link a plate that was at a specific location at a particular time could give us a critical lead in solving a major crime. That’s why we were going to start out by holding on to the data for 1 year before destroying it. Our thought right now is–let’s see if this provides us with any real investigative value for a year as a pilot project. If not, I would support holding these photos of license plates for no more than 90 days and then deleting them. This is still all new to us, so we are trying to get it right. The public feedback is appreciated. ~ Chief Magnus, RPD

  5. Richard E. Stollings on October 31, 2013 at 5:54 pm

    Same point. Richmond Police Deparment want to watch us. But they do not want us to watch them. We still do not have camera in police cars. To see what the police do or do not do. Police cars tracking device where we can see if the police came to the seen or not. There are no camera in the police station, interview rooms police parking lots. What a police officer do in the station is just important to see. As well as how they treat the public when they come into the station. We want the camera to work and not to work when their is a problem with an officer. We want the information store in Black Box like equipment. This stop the questions to what happen to the tape. The more they ask to see us the more we should see them. We want Equal camera services if they watch us we watch them

  6. […] recently purchased license plate readers (you can read more about the controversial technology here) and conduct monthly stings. This has helped reduce auto theft by 23-percent this year, but police […]

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