More Technology Isn’t the Answer

The city council made the right move when it tabled a plan to purchase license-plate readers.


File photo by Darwin BondGraham

Policing in the 21st century has increasingly relied on technological advances, from computers in patrol cars to body-worn cameras. So, it should have come as no surprise that when Alameda experienced an uptick in thefts recently, Police Chief Paul Rolleri proposed a technological solution: spend $500,000 to purchase and install license plate readers at all of the Island’s borders with Oakland.

Rolleri reasoned that his department could use the data from the readers to track vehicles involved in crime and concluded the cameras could be a deterrent. He noted that Piedmont experienced a crime drop after it installed cameras in 2014 on its borders with Oakland.

But in recent years, privacy and immigration advocates have raised concerns about license-plate-reader technology — not so much about the cameras but about who has access to their data. Could the data be accessed by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, or ICE, which could then use it to track undocumented people? If so, then this new technology would run afoul of Alameda’s sanctuary city law, which prohibits APD from helping ICE’s deportation efforts. 

At a Feb. 6 council meeting, Rolleri had difficulty fully answering the access question. And so the city council made the right move in delaying approval of the license-plate technology until the city adopts procedures ensuring that ICE can’t use it.

And that day may never come. Why? For starters, Rolleri had planned to ink a technology contract with Vigilant Solutions, which recently reached a deal with ICE that allows it to access its database.

Alameda’s data also would be shared with Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, which allows federal, state, and local law enforcement to use its database. Center officials say they changed their rules to block ICE’s access after California adopted its statewide sanctuary law. But we’ve learned in the Trump era that rules we’ve come to depend on can be changed in a moment, including those that protected Dreamers from deportation.

The regional intelligence center is federally funded, and as such, the Trump administration could pressure the center at any time to allow ICE to access its data. After all, the president has made targeting immigrants one of his top priorities. It shouldn’t be one of Alameda’s.