ALAMEDA -- The City Council has given the green light for the Alameda police to seek grant money to purchase license plate readers, but it wants more public input on how the devices should be used before officers can work with them.
The council's unanimous decision Tuesday comes as police are field-testing two of the Automated License Plate Recognition devices on a single patrol car, using them since Sept. 18 to take digital images of nearby license plates as a way to locate vehicles that are stolen or connected with a crime.
So far, the devices have scanned about 97,000 plates and scored about 85 "hits" of suspicious vehicles, interim Alameda police Chief Paul Rolleri said.
The plates scanned were within about 50 feet of the patrol car and the hits included vehicles stolen in San Mateo and San Diego, Rolleri said.
What concerned the council, however, was whether collecting the data was an invasion of people's privacy since license plates of law-abiding citizens are scanned as the patrol car cruises past.
"What about the rest of us, driving around town, minding our own business?" Mayor Marie Gilmore said.
Rolleri said the collected data is used on a "right-to-know, need-to-know" basis, or the same way that police handle any sensitive information during an investigation.
"This is for criminal investigations," he said about the technology. "This is what I want to use it for."
The cameras can register up to 1,800 plates per minute at speeds of up 160 mph, according to a background report prepared for the council. The collected data typically includes a black-and-white plate image, a contextual color image, GPS coordinates and the date and time the image was captured.
The system can cost between $10,000 and $25,000 depending on the manufacturer and the number of cameras mounted on a patrol car, which can be up to four.
The effort to secure license plate readers for the department follows City Councilmembers Tony Daysog and Lena Tam meeting with residents at the Bayport housing development to review crime and public safety in the city's West End.
Among the recent cases that led to the meeting was the arrest of a 14-year-old boy on suspicion of sexually assaulting a female student in a restroom at Ruby Bridges Elementary School and the Aug. 3 armed robbery of Citibank on Webster Street.
"We need to give (the police) the devices that allow them to protect and to serve," Daysog said.
If Rolleri can secure funding for the readers, Alameda police will likely enter into an agreement to process the data with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, an agency that helps local, state and federal law enforcement collect and analyze information on possible criminal threats.
The center keeps the collected data for 12 months before deleting it, a time frame that Rolleri said he supports because it gives police enough time to retrieve the information if it's needed for an investigation.
Public speakers during Tuesday's meeting said they were concerned that federal authorities would have access to the locally collected data, and that the information would end up sold to a private party.
Councilman Stewart Chen also questioned whether the data could be used for immigration enforcement.
Alameda police need to secure a grant to pay for the license readers since the technology was not included in its current two-year budget.
While the council gave police the go-ahead to search for funding, it also said the department must come back with a draft policy on the devices before they can be used on the street.
Police and city officials will host a town hall meeting as part of creating the policy and to address any privacy concerns that people may have, City Manager John Russo said.
The devices currently being field-tested in Alameda are from Lehr Auto/Pursuit North, a company that the police department uses to install emergency equipment on its vehicles.
Reach Peter Hegarty at 510-748-1654 or follow him on Twitter.com/Peter_Hegarty.