Police using license plate scanners to track vehicles

If you drove past AT&T Park during a World Series game, there’s a good chance the cops knew you were there. That’s because a vehicle with license plate recognition cameras had been set up by regional law enforcement officials, recording all the cars that passed by.

The idea was to give police a heads up if a wanted criminal came into the area. And if there had been a major incident, such as a shooting or a terrorist attack, investigators could go back and see which cars were there.

“We’re not overly worried, we haven’t had any specific threats to the Bay Area,” said Capt. Ronald Brooks, head of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, which owns the camera vehicle. But, “obviously we still have to stay on our game.”

Police agencies in San Francisco and on the Peninsula are expanding their use of license plate recognition cameras for everything from stolen cars to homicide investigations, though critics have raised privacy concerns.

This week, the San Francisco Police Department installed license plate scanners on 10 patrol cars, adding to the fleet of six cruisers that it outfitted several years ago to hunt for cars that are stolen or belong to wanted criminals, Lt. Troy Dangerfield said.

At the start of every shift, the officer downloads a “hot list” of wanted vehicles. The system then scans plates to check vehicle records and uses GPS to record the location of cars.

“It’s a great tool to have,” Dangerfield said.

Also this week, the intelligence center headed by Brooks bought four new license plate recognition trailers at a cost of $164,000. Bay Area law enforcement agencies can borrow them for specific investigations, such as an area hit by a serial rapist, Brooks said.

In San Mateo County, the sheriff’s vehicle theft task force has had a single minivan outfitted since 2007 with cameras that can scan up to 10,000 license plates on a shift, Agent Sean Parks said.

By comparison, an officer manually looking for stolen cars would “be lucky to run 40 to 50 plates,” Parks said. East Palo Alto is also adopting the technology.

But some critics have raised concerns about the cameras, including how long the data is stored.

“People should be able to go about their daily lives without being tracked and monitored,” said Nicole Ozer of the ACLU of Northern California in a statement. “This is a ‘needle in a haystack’ approach that will waste money, invade privacy and invite unfair profiling.”

Brooks said the regional center stores the data for less than a year, and police say the scanners are capturing information that is already inspected by police officers.

“It’s become a pretty broadly accepted technology,” Brooks said.

sbishop@sfexaminer.com

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