A CHP vehicle on westbound Interstate 80. Credit: Courtesy of CHP

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Mayor Libby Schaaf is asking the state to install a network of license plate readers on highway on-ramps and off-ramps, as well as provide California Highway Patrol officers to enforce traffic laws on city streets, similar to patrols conducted in September.

Schaaf made the requests in a letter sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday and announced on Tuesday. In addition to freeways, Schaaf indicated she wants the cameras along state highways, which could include San Pablo Avenue and International Boulevard because they are still designated as such. 

Oakland police already use automated license plate scanners mounted on patrol cars, and use of the technology is reviewed by the city’s civilian Privacy Advisory Commission. Cameras installed by Caltrans or CHP, however, may not fall under the commission’s purview.

The mayor said the primary mode of transportation for people who commit crimes in Oakland is vehicles. Schaaf said cameras could help gather intelligence on motorists who come into the city via freeways and state highways to join sideshows and commit crimes, including participating in the recent trend of organized burglaries and robberies of businesses. 

Between the weekend of Nov. 20 and Nov. 22, burglars and armed robberies struck 19 cannabis businesses throughout Oakland, according to police Lt. Jeff Thomason. Break-ins also occurred at small businesses and pharmacies, while coordinated crews struck high-end stores in San Francisco and Walnut Creek. 

In her letter, she also cited a decade-high homicide rate, currently at 131 killings, and an increase in armed robberies and carjackings. 

“The need for a system that can capture vehicle descriptions and alert law enforcement to vehicles associated with violent crime, in real time, has never been more apparent,” Schaaf wrote. “Such technology can multiply law enforcement efforts in a focused, intelligence-based manner, while still balancing the important privacy interests of the community.” 

The idea of outsourcing license plate readers to the state is raising concerns among some privacy advocates. Most Bay Area police departments use license plate readers. Oakland has 35 cameras affixed to patrol cars that constantly scan license plates as they travel through town. 

While police argue the cameras help recover stolen vehicles and can produce useful investigative leads, privacy advocates have questioned the effectiveness of the readers and whether they lead to a significant increase in solving various types of crime. 

“I’m not surprised,” Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission Chair Brian Hofer said in response to Schaaf’s letter. “All over the country, elected leaders seem to have no better idea to reduce violent crime than ‘more of the same.’ It’s disheartening that Oakland is no different.” 

Earlier this year, Hofer and the Privacy Commission had recommended banning the use of the automated license plate readers in Oakland. He later sued the police department alleging OPD is violating policy by keeping scan data longer than it is allowed to. It’s unclear whether the cameras, if installed, would fall under the purview of the Privacy Commission. 

If there is a data-sharing agreement between the city and state, the commission would have the authority, said Hofer, who himself was the victim of a state license plate camera which incorrectly flagged his rental car as stolen. 

“It’s also significant that rather than follow their own existing laws and policies with regard to license plate readers, Oakland chooses to instead outsource its mass surveillance practices to the state,” Hofer told The Oaklandside. “If (automated license plate readers) is so effective, why can’t Oakland do it on its own?”

Schaaf’s calls to bring in CHP to Oakland come a week after the City Council voted to add two more police academies next year, a proposal Schaaf supported. OPD has dropped to 676 officers, as an unexpected number have resigned, retired or left for other departments. 

In her Monday letter to Newsom, the mayor asked for “as much CHP presence and traffic enforcement as possible.” 

In August, the governor at the request of Chinatown leaders authorized sending a specialized CHP unit to help with sideshows and enforcing the vehicle code in Oakland’s high-injury network. The network includes 34 streets and 22 intersections spread throughout the city’s flatlands.  

State grant money funded the patrols for three weekends in September. “We’d be grateful to execute such an operation again,” wrote Schaaf. She called the patrols “extremely helpful.” 

Some expressed skepticism that CHP would be held to the same high standards regarding stops, use of force, racial profiling, and other policies OPD officers must follow. Others denounced the idea of allowing CHP to patrol city streets. 

At a rally in August, members of Anti-Police Terror Project and Communities for Restorative Youth Justice stood alongside Councilmember Carroll Fife and the sister of 23-year-old Erik Salgado demanding the city keep CHP off its streets. Salgado was shot and killed by three CHP officers in June 2020, after he tried to flee from a traffic stop. Salgado was unarmed. 

To get a better understanding of what CHP officers did while in Oakland, The Oaklandside through a Public Records Act request asked for documents of all stops, citations, arrests and tows the state officers made while on the September assignment. CHP has requested more time to provide those records. 

David DeBolt reports on City Hall and policing for The Oaklandside. He spent 12 years working for daily newspapers in the Bay Area, including on the Peninsula and Solano County. He joined the Bay Area News Group in 2012 where he covered a variety of beats, most recently as a senior breaking news reporter. During his time at BANG, DeBolt covered Oakland City Hall, the Raiders stadium saga and the A’s search for a new ballpark, as well as the Oakland Police Department and police reform efforts. He was part of the East Bay Times staff honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for coverage of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.