ALAMEDA -- The City Council could consider approving a policy on how police will use license plate readers as early as this spring, although city officials also say they want more public input before they begin outfitting patrol cars with the devices.
Police in Piedmont and San Leandro already use Automated License Plate Recognition readers, which can register up to 1,800 plates per minute at speeds of up to 160 mph. 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.
Officers use the devices to take digital images of nearby license plates as a way to locate vehicles that may have been stolen or connected with a crime
The draft policy that Alameda officials are considering says the readers can only be used for legitimate law enforcement business and that the police department will make it a priority to use the devices in a neighborhood where a homicide, shooting or other major incident has occurred.
"It's still relatively new technology for all of us," Alameda police Chief Paul Rolleri told a forum on the devices Monday that drew about 50 people at the main branch of the Alameda Free Library.
Among the concerns voiced by some at the forum was who would have access to the data and that the draft policy was too vague on how the devices whould be used.
"Without proper safeguards, this technology is wide open for misuse or indeed abuse," said Matt Cagle, an attorney who works with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Some at the forum also said license plate readers should be only used for investigating felonies or other serious crimes, a restriction that Rolleri noted would mean the readers could not then be used in a missing person case, or to help track down someone who has been breaking into vehicles since it's a misdemeanor.
The forum followed the council voting unanimously in October to authorize the police to seek funding for the devices. It also followed police field-testing two of the devices on a single patrol car last year.
Within about two weeks after first using them on Sept. 18, the devices scanned about 97,000 plates in Alameda and scored about 85 "hits" on suspicious vehicles.
The technology was also recently used in San Leandro to locate a suspect who was wanted in connection with five commercial burglaries in Alameda, Rolleri said.
But Rolleri also said that he recognized some felt the technology was an invasion of people's privacy since the license plates of law-abiding citizens are scanned as the patrol car cruises past.
"There is a little bit of a trust factor here," he said. "And I get it. Some people just don't trust law enforcement."
The safeguards to protect privacy in the draft policy include having regular audits and having officers use a password-protected system so that those who have access to the information can be traced, and having all non-law enforcement requests for any of the collected information go through a supervisor.
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.
If the council approves the draft policy and police can get funding, the department 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.
The draft policy will likely come before the City Council in the spring, when the public can also weigh in on the readers, Vice Mayor Marilyn Izzy Ashcraft said.
"This is a work in progress," Ashcraft said, adding: "Evolving technology always presents evolving challenges."
The devices field-tested in Alameda were 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.