A small white camera attached to a street light with trees, a street, and a lone car in the background.
A automated license plate reader (ALPR) mounted on a light pole on Oakland Avenue and Grand Avenue on the border of Piedmont and Oakland. This camera is operated by the Piedmont Police Department. Oakland's cameras are mounted on vehicles. Credit: Darwin BondGraham.

In response to rising crime and concerns about sideshows, auto burglaries, and highway shootings, Oakland officials want to give the police more surveillance cameras that can scan vehicle license plates, identifying and locating stolen cars and vehicles connected to other potential crimes. 

Earlier this month, Mayor Sheng Thao announced Oakland will receive a $1.2 million loan from the state to install automated license plate reader cameras along state right-of-ways. This includes freeways and International Boulevard, which is considered a state highway as well as a city street

A week before Thao’s announcement, Councilmember Kevin Jenkins declared on Twitter that he intends to ask for greater investment in license plate scanning cameras, often referred to as ALPR. Jenkins told The Oaklandside that in light of the mayor’s announcement, he wants to talk with the police chief to see if the department’s needs have been met.

The decision to invest more in ALPR cameras is puzzling given that the city’s existing license plate scanners—about 30 cameras mounted on OPD vehicles—have been shut off since February.

OPD disclosed the shutdown of their existing ALPR system, which has been in operation for years, during the July 6 meeting of the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission. The police department’s revelation about the ALPR system was first covered by The Oakland Observer

OPD program manager Carlo Beckman told the commission that the ransomware attack downed the system. But department officials decided to keep it offline even after OPD recovered from the attack.

The department’s decision to unilaterally suspend the system came as a shock to Brian Hofer, the chair of the Privacy Advisory Commission, a volunteer board that oversees surveillance technology used by the city.

“They fought tooth and nail for three years to keep ALPR and now they just decide to go and turn it off because, according to them, the reporting was too onerous? That’s a stunning public position to take,” Hofer told The Oaklandside.

Beckman told the Privacy Commission that OPD hasn’t reactivated its roughly 30 ALPR cameras because the department was worried it wouldn’t be able to comply with new policies governing the use of ALPR that the City Council approved last year. 

Specifically, the department was unable to execute a software upgrade that was meant to improve OPD’s ability to comply with the new rules, which limit how long the department can hold onto data it collects, and mandate regular audits and reports to ensure the use of the cameras doesn’t run afoul of Oakland’s privacy rules. 

Beckman said there were issues with acquiring a vendor and purchasing additional servers, and concerns arose about meeting the new reporting requirements. Beckman said the department eventually put the upgrade on hold and left the cameras off to avoid violating the new policies. 

Beckman indicated the system will be offline indefinitely. An OPD spokesperson told The Oaklandside the department made this decision as it continues to work with the Privacy Commission on “policy and technology.”

What this means for the new state-funded ALPR cameras Oakland is supposed to receive is unclear. Pati Navalta, a spokesperson for Mayor Thao, said the new cameras will run on a different system than the previous cameras. But there’s no indication they’ll be governed by a separate policy.

Asked when Mayor Thao learned about OPD’s decision, Navalta said Thao and Interim Police Chief Darren Allison “have had ongoing conversations over the last few months about the need to upgrade the system.”

“Both agreed on investing in improved technology to address community safety,” Navalta said.

Navalta noted that this technology has been instrumental for solving crimes in Oakland. OPD’s latest annual report on its ALPR system includes examples of 34 vehicles that these cameras helped officers to identify, locate, and recover. 

A powerful technology needing safeguards

The Privacy Advisory Commission, which was created in 2016, has been sparring with OPD over its ALPR system policies for years. In 2021, OPD acknowledged it was retaining scan data for two years, in violation of a department policy requiring it to delete data older than six months. The commission also learned that OPD had been giving the FBI unfettered access to license plate reader scans outside the limits established by the department’s 2016 ALPR policy.

Hofer said that in 2021 the commission recommended a two-year moratorium on using ALPR, citing the technology’s lack of effectiveness and OPD’s failure to comply with reporting requirements and system audits. The moratorium proposal was shelved, and in 2022 the City Council approved giving OPD $16,000 to upgrade its software system to help the department conduct required audits and deliver reports on the performance of the ALPR system. At the time, Councilmembers Loren Taylor and Treva Reid argued this technology could enhance OPD’s ability to solve serious crimes, including armed robberies and homicides. 

OPD did not respond to questions from The Oaklandside about when the department notified the mayor, city administrator or the City Council about its decision to keep the ALPR system shut down. 

Hofer acknowledged that ALPR can help with some law enforcement activities like recovering stolen vehicles. But he noted that in the most recent annual ALPR report, OPD was unable to find any cases in 2022 where the system helped the department locate where an individual might be based on past vehicle location data. 

Eli Wolfe reports on City Hall for The Oaklandside. He was previously a senior reporter for San José Spotlight, where he had a beat covering Santa Clara County’s government and transportation. He also worked as an investigative reporter for the Pasadena-based newsroom FairWarning, where he covered labor, consumer protection and transportation issues. He started his journalism career as a freelancer based out of Berkeley. Eli’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, NBCNews.com, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.