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A black license plate reader is about twice as big and five times as thick as a cellphone with a cap over the top and buttons. The screenshot shows the object on green with captions reading "vehicle Fingerprint bumper sticker," "License plate OR 09 3LKD" and "Alert time less than 45 sec."

Oakland to install hundreds of license plate readers across the city

on October 19, 2023

Oakland City Council unanimously approved the installation of 300 automated license plate readers throughout the city on Tuesday.

The vote comes nearly two months after Gov. Gavin Newsom approved a $1.2 million loan to the city, following Mayor Sheng Thao’s request for surveillance cameras to combat rising crime.  

Thao tweeted her support for the vote on Wednesday, saying the cameras will help police “track criminal vehicles across the city based on their unique features such as make, model, and color.”

“This will greatly aid the police in their efforts to make arrests and gather evidence,” she said in the tweet. 

The cameras will be deployed in “hot spots” designated by the Police Department.

Though there is no specific timeline for when the cameras will go live, Josh Thomas, a representative from Flock Safety, the security company that sells the automated license plate readers, stated, “We can move as quickly as the city can move” to install the equipment.

Councilmembers on Tuesday applauded the move and said the cameras are necessary to address violence. 

“It’s imperative that we get to a place where we can enforce our laws and get to a place where people aren’t taking advantage of the chaos in our communities,” Councilmember Kevin Jenkins said. 

Thao is not alone in supporting surveillance cameras in the city. On Sept. 19, Councilmember Dan Kalb authored a resolution aimed at prioritizing public safety and enhancing the city’s response to crime. The resolution encouraged the city administrator to explore putting cameras in neighborhoods, businesses and freeway on-ramps, with the goal of improving the Police Department’s capacity to solve serious crimes.

But some community members have expressed concern about the cameras. 

Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, expressed disappointment with the mayor for characterizing surveillance as a sensible crime-fighting solution.

“It is absolutely nonsensical, and it’s nonsensical because we have done this before and it hasn’t worked,” Brooks said. 

Brooks referred to errors with automated license plate reader technology. In one case, Brian Hofer, chair of the Oakland Privacy Commission, was pulled over at gunpoint by Contra Costa County sheriff’s deputies when a camera misidentified his rental car as stolen, The Mercury News reported. A similar incident occurred in Walnut Creek to Zachary Norris, the former executive director of the Ella Baker Center, a human rights nonprofit. 

Critics also argue that automated license plate readers are not effective in reducing crime. This viewpoint is supported by a Police Department report revealed during a July Privacy Advisory Commission meeting. “Oakland Police Department was unable to find any definitive cases where our automated license plate readers helped on an active investigation for 2022,” the report stated.

Brooks also said the surveillance could pose dangers to some Oakland communities. 

“Black and brown and poor communities are already highly surveilled,” Brooks said. “And this isn’t something that just Black and brown and poor communities should be concerned about. … Your picture is taken, your information, your age, your date of birth, your marital status, all that stuff goes into a database and we have no control over where that data goes.” 

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