License plate reader cameras affixed to the top of a police vehicle in Emeryville. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

If you own a car in Oakland, chances are your license plate has been scanned and stored by one of the Oakland Police Department’s 35 sets of automated license plate readers. The cameras, which are mounted on police vehicles, can tell officers where you’ve been and even show sensitive information like where you live, work, or worship. 

But the police department’s use of the devices is now being called into question by Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission, a volunteer board that advises the City Council about technology issues. The commission voted unanimously last week to recommend that OPD shut down its license plate scanners for a period of two years.

Oakland police officers currently use the cameras to search in real-time for stolen cars or vehicles wanted in association with a crime or a missing persons case. The cameras automatically scan plates and feed the license plate number into a state database which then alerts an officer if there’s a “hit,” a plate that’s been flagged for some reason. The department also saves scanned plate numbers—including time, date, and location—in another database, and can access the information for up to one year after it’s collected.

The commission cited multiple failures by the police department to comply with state and city reporting requirements for how and when the cameras, and the data they collect, are used. Commissioners also said that OPD ignored their public records requests for information they needed to fully assess the department’s use of the scanners.

“You have violated every single oversight mechanism we have,” Brian Hofer, chair of the privacy commission, told a police commander at the meeting. “You say what you’ve got to say to get [policies] approved, and then you go toss it in the garbage can.”

Police and city officials taking part in last week’s meeting acknowledged some shortcomings with the information they provided to the commission, but they asked the commissioners not to recommend the cameras be canceled. Instead, they want more time to work on the policies and another chance to provide documentation.

“I think the city administration shares some responsibility here,” said Joe Devries, the city’s Director of Interdepartmental Operations, about the lack of information provided to the commission. But Devries, who is also the city’s chief privacy officer, called the request for a two-year suspension “arbitrary” and “punitive.”

Deputy Chief Roland Holmgren told the commission that the police department doesn’t take its reporting requirements for surveillance technologies lightly. Holmgren said he was “taken aback” by the suggestion that the department be banned from using the license plate scanners, although he recognized that the department may not have given the privacy commission the documents it was seeking.

“Have we always gotten things correct or as they should be? No, we’re under an enormous amount of challenges from many different angles,” said Holmgren during the meeting.

Members of the Privacy Advisory Commission and Director of Interdepartmental Operations Joe Devries (top left) and Deputy Chief Roland Holmgren (center) at last week’s meeting.

The Oaklandside asked OPD for a response to the commission’s recommendation but did not hear back.

The Oakland police have been using license plate scanners for over a decade.

Hofer said that this is the first time the privacy commission, which was established in 2016, has recommended that a technology currently in use by the city be prohibited. In this case, he said, the police department simply hasn’t done enough to justify ongoing use of the scanners.

“I can’t find any evidence of compliance at all with their existing [automated license plate reader] policy,” Hofer said in an interview. “Every year they have violated it. They couldn’t have done less to comply with this.”

In 2015, state lawmakers passed SB 34, a bill that requires police departments using license plate readers to develop a use policy and keep track of how and when the data is accessed.

In addition, Oakland police are required to have the privacy commission review their policies for the cameras, and prepare an impact report so that the City Council can make final decisions about how and when the cameras can be used.

According to Hofer, OPD never kept track of when the data was accessed, potentially in violation of SB 34. Hofer filed a Public Records Act request with the department in March 2019 seeking this information, but almost two years later, the department hasn’t responded. The privacy commission also asked OPD for annual reports describing use of the cameras that the department was supposed to write, but OPD hasn’t provided these either.

Other police agencies have violated SB 34. A State Auditor’s report from 2019 found that Los Angeles, Marin, Fresno, and Sacramento, all were missing required policies.

License plate readers are in use by numerous police departments in California. The California State Auditor found 230 police and sheriff’s departments that use the technology. 

License plate readers have proven to be inaccurate at times. Police have pulled over innocent people at gunpoint when license plate cameras incorrectly scan a plate. In 2019, two Contra Costa sheriff’s deputies pulled privacy commissioner Hofer over while he was driving a rental car, drew their guns, and detained him because their license plate camera erroneously identified Hofer’s vehicle as stolen. Hofer sued Contra Costa over the incident.

Civil rights advocates have long warned about the proliferation of license plate readers without safeguards to prevent unwarranted surveillance. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the New York City Police were criticized for collecting plate scans on a street where a mosque was located, and a study of the Oakland Police Department’s license plate data showed that most scans were from lower-income communities of color.

Police say that license plate scanners help them recover more stolen vehicles and that the cameras produce useful investigative leads for serious criminal cases. In a report submitted to the privacy commission, OPD listed several cases from 2020 in which the cameras played a role, including one case where cameras located a vehicle registered to a missing woman; officers searched the vehicle’s trunk and found the woman’s body.

In the Bay Area, most police departments use license plate scanners, and most departments share their data with one another.

Privacy advocates question the effectiveness of license plate readers as a crime-fighting technology and whether the trade off between allowing mass surveillance on roadways to solve more cases is worth it. Research has yet to prove that the cameras lead to a significant increase in solving various types of crime.

The privacy commission’s recommendations will be considered by the City Council at an upcoming meeting.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.