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Oakland’s Automated License Plate Reader (ALPR) Debacle

History of ALPRs in Oakland casts a shadow over the notion that license plate readers are indispensable tools for law enforcement

Oakland, California, a city renowned for its rich historical and cultural significance, finds itself grappling with how to respond to recent crime waves. In the midst of this, Oakland City Councilmember Kevin Jenkins took to X, formerly Twitter, to decry rising crime rates and propose legislation to fund an Automated License Plate Reader (ALPR) program—cameras that capture and record vehicle information such as license plate numbers. But a closer examination reveals Jenkins’s lack of awareness regarding Oakland’s history with ALPRs and how recent police department actions cast doubt on the efficacy of such technology. Jenkins wrote,

While our police force is dedicated, their efficiency relies on having the right tools. Post-August recess, I’ll collaborate with staff & colleagues to introduce a crucial proposal. I aim to equip Oakland with Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs). Our neighboring cities, San Leandro, Piedmont, & Alameda, already have ALPRs. We should too.

Proponents of ALPRs argue that they aid law enforcement in generating investigative leads, apprehending criminals, and recovering stolen vehicles. But the research supporting ALPR efficacy is scant at best, and some studies, such as the notable George Mason University Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy’s report, have noted how these cameras are a poor tool for fighting crime. While it should not be concluded that ALPRs are never useful, or that they have never had a legitimate success story, the absence of concrete evidence raises concerns about investing substantial funds, possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars, into a technology with questionable effectiveness.

Jenkins’s X thread paints a picture of a councilmember ill-equipped to lead on combatting crime. His statement implies that the city does not have ALPRs and that Oakland should have ALPRs like “San Leandro, Piedmont, & Alameda.” Oakland, however, does have ALPRs; they have been online since 2014. It appears that he has overlooked the existing ALPR program. This oversight not only undermines the credibility of his proposal but also raises questions about the level of research and understanding invested in his legislative initiatives.

Jenkins’ thread continues, 

Jenkins claims he will work with the city privacy commission to establish safeguards protecting citizens’ privacy from potential misuse of ALPR data. Yet, he seems to have forgotten that the city already has a policy in place to address surveillance technology, including ALPRs, an ALPR-specific use policy, and ALPR training resources. This suggests either a lack of awareness of existing measures or an attempt to use privacy concerns as a mere political smokescreen.

Intriguingly, the Oakland Police Department deactivated the entire ALPR network in February 2023, citing onerous reporting requirements that made the operation untenable. One might ask, “Are the reporting requirements actually so prohibitive that we are handicapping a valuable technology?” On the contrary, modern ALPRs automate nearly all record keeping. The City of Piedmont, for example, has an online transparency portal that publishes relevant reporting data that is, at least partially, auto-compiled by its ALPR network. It is updated regularly.

Commenters at previous Oakland privacy commission meetings have expressed that the reporting may be burdensome due to outdated information systems. This is unconvincing for a few reasons: 1) nearly all of the reporting can be boilerplate language, 2) OPD failed to mention any problem before deactivation of the system, such as staffing or computing issues, 3) OPD has never formally asked for funding to upgrade information systems despite being subject to reporting obligations since 2016 due to state law, and 4) even without automatic record keeping by modern ALPRs, Microsoft Excel has existed for some 35 years and would be sufficient as demonstrated by Alameda, BART, and Berkeley, which all use Excel for their records.

Such a development in Oakland casts a long shadow over the notion that ALPRs are indispensable tools for law enforcement. The decision to deactivate the cameras implies that even the police themselves do not see the technology as critical or worth the administrative burden it imposes.

Is the deactivation what Jenkins meant when he said, “I aim to equip Oakland with Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs)”? It seems doubtful. Jenkins appears to be thinking about introducing ALPRs to the city for the first time, de novo. It also begs the question: If the technology does not deliver what its proponents claim, then what is the reason for Jenkins’s ardor in pushing for its expansion? Political posturing in the face of rising crime?

A recent report from Oakland’s police department further dampens the enthusiasm surrounding ALPRs. The report candidly admits that although the cameras did identify some stolen vehicles, they provided little to no substantial assistance in any criminal investigations last year, before the ALPR network was deactivated. The Automated License Plate Reader 2022 Annual Report, published in June 2023, reads, “OPD was unable to find any definitive cases where our ALPR helped on an active investigation for 2022.”

Critics of ALPRs argue that the potential benefits they offer in terms of solving crimes must be balanced against the loss of privacy and civil liberties they entail, plus the cost of the equipment and administration/compliance costs. The storage and analysis of vast amounts of license plate data raise legitimate concerns about potential misuse and abuse, particularly when adequate safeguards and oversight are lacking, an issue I have previously covered at length in The Pitfalls of Law Enforcement License Plate Readers in California and Safeguards to Protect the Public, an entry in Independent Institute’s California Golden Fleece® Awards.

Just days after Jenkin’s public proposal, news broke that Governor Gavin Newsom will send highway patrol officers and ALPRs to Oakland to help with traffic enforcement, which includes extending a “$1.2 million loan to Oakland so the city can immediately install automated license plate readers on state right-of-ways, which include freeways and International Boulevard.” Jenkins later praised the move, though he did not say whether or not this would satisfy his previous proposal.

As these changes take center stage, it is imperative for the city council and the public to scrutinize the evidence carefully. Relying on unverified assumptions and unchecked statements can lead to hasty decisions that may not only waste taxpayer money but also undermine the trust between law enforcement and the community they serve. 

Oakland residents and taxpayers, struggling with increasing levels of crime, deserve policies that genuinely enhance public safety while respecting the privacy and rights of its residents. The inconsistencies in Councilmember Kevin Jenkins’s proposal demand a careful reevaluation of the merits and shortcomings of ALPR technology. As the debate unfolds, Oakland must chart a path that upholds both safety and civil liberties, mindful of the mistakes of the past and cautious of illusory promises.

Jonathan Hofer is a research associate at the Independent Institute. He holds a BA in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. He has written extensively on both California and national public policy issues. His research interests include privacy law, local surveillance, and the impact of emerging technologies on civil liberties. He is the author of The Pitfalls of Law Enforcement License Plate Readers in California and Safeguards to Protect the Public, COVID in California and Automated License Plate Readers: A Study in Failure, and his articles have appeared in such publications as The Hill, Towards Data Science, Human Events, The American Conservative, Real Clear Education, California Globe, Orange County Register, and The Daily Californian.
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