San Leandro Approves Public Safety Cameras

San Leandro’s councilmembers voted Monday, in favor of replacing two public safety cameras as part of a pilot program to expand the city’s surveillance system.

Police Chief Sandra Spagnoli explained that the current security cameras do not have the capacity to help the police detect license plate numbers and recover stolen vehicles. The new cameras will have license plate readers that could help the police catch more burglary suspects and prevent vehicle theft, Spagnoli said.

“I can say the majority of the community that I’ve spoken to is excited about increasing the security in the city, and adding things like cameras and license plate readers,” Spagnoli said.

The new cameras will replace two cameras, one at city hall and one the police department. The city also uses red light cameras at busy traffic intersections, two license plate reader cameras, and traffic cameras.

While auto thefts were on the raise from 1999 to 2007, they have since decreased to levels lower 1999, according to the City Data website.

Spagnoli told the council “crime can be displaced” using cameras and cited other cities that do so.

Pittsburg is a good example, Spagnoli said, because its camera system displaced crime. Pittsburg initially installed five cameras in 2005. Spagnoli made a case for improving police technology to get ahead of criminals, who have started using rental cars and other tactics to avoid the police.

“We need to get in front of this before this 150 camera system comes to Oakland, and then we’re going to say ‘why didn’t we do something about this,’” Spagnoli said.

Oakland is in the process of installing more than 150 new cameras. She worries that if the city does not install more security cameras, there will be an increase in crime.

In accordance with state law police departments, for at least one year, must hold the data received by community cameras. Spagnoli noted that the data is only useful for 30-90 days, before the data becomes “stale.” Legally the data may be purged in less than a year, but the law requires the police department to retain a written record of what occurred in the video.

License plate records will be held at the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center for one year. All shots taken by the camera will be retained for the one-year period, Spagnoli said, even if the pictures aren’t taken of suspect vehicles.

Many community members present at the council meeting were appalled by the idea of installing two general-purpose surveillance cameras, and questioned the efficiency of the existing license plate reader camera system.

Tim Holmes sees the installation of surveillance cameras as infringing on the public’s right to privacy, and as a potential for abuse. He supports instead putting cameras on police officers, and installing better street lighting to improve safety.

“At best government surveillance inherently compromises our individual privacy; at worse government surveillance is ineffective and ultimately has a long history of being abused at the cost of our individual rights, and even our political process,” said Holmes. “This history is as local as Oakland and as far away as our federal government.”

Mike Katz-Lacabe claims that license plate readers took a picture of him and his children. He questioned where the data was to support the efficiency of the city’s license plate reader system, which was installed in 2008.

Arlene Lum, the president-elect of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, spoke in support of the program. One night, when Lum’s husband was pulling into their house’s garage, he was by a man into his home who then robbed him at gunpoint. The very next day, their family went out and bought security cameras for their homes.

“If you’ve never had that experience before, it’s really earth-shattering. Not only to the victim, but also to the family,” said Lum.

The city will meet again to discuss further details about the program. No date has been set for the follow-up meeting.