Menlo Park to use license plate readers to track cars entering and leaving Belle Haven 

click to enlarge An officer in Arizona scans license plates from a camera mounted on the front of his police cruiser, much like the technology Menlo Park police will soon be using. - ROSS D. FRANKLIN/2007 AP FILE PHOTO
  • Ross D. Franklin/2007 AP file photo
  • An officer in Arizona scans license plates from a camera mounted on the front of his police cruiser, much like the technology Menlo Park police will soon be using.

The Menlo Park Police Department is adding surveillance cameras and license plate readers -- technology long employed in the private sector -- to combat drug-related violence in Belle Haven.

The Police Department plans to install one surveillance camera at each of the four roadway entrances to the Belle Haven neighborhood -- located east of Highway 101, and walking distance from Facebook's headquarters.

The license plate readers will end up on mobile units -- two on marked patrol cars, and one on an unmarked car. Primarily, the department will use the readers to locate stolen and other flagged vehicles in a statewide database.

The technologies will use stored data used to assist with investigations after the fact, by helping to place suspects at the scene of a crime based on a vehicle's location, or obtaining images of suspects potentially on their way to commit a crime.

"The idea for the cameras and plate readers originated within the neighborhood, amidst a spate of gang-related murders and violence," Cmdr. Dave Bertini said.

At one high school class in Belle Haven, every single student told Mayor Pro Tem Ray Mueller -- a volunteer teacher -- that they had witnessed gun violence. One had even seen a murder, Mueller said.

At a recent meeting Menlo Park's City Council unanimously approved both tools -- the license plate readers costing $57,914 and the cameras $69,768.

Such use of retained image and video data, especially from license plate readers, has come under national scrutiny in recent months -- concerns amplified by leaked National Security Agency documents detailing surveillance programs that have unlawfully targeted innocent Americans.

"I blame the federal government for this fear," Bertini said. "Everyone is so afraid the government is coming in and spying on us."

The reality is much different, Bertini said. There are penal code sections and rules and procedures in place for handling information that's potentially private, he added.

"It's a felony for an officer to access information for purposes that aren't law enforcement," he said.

Images collected by license plate readers are transmitted and stored in a database managed by the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center. Menlo Park's City Council has insisted data from the city be stored for half a year, instead of the typical year, recommended by the state attorney general. And center director Michael Sena said such data is only accessible by those authorities authorized to access it.

The private sector already makes wide use of license plate readers. Tow truck drivers, and others searching for vehicles marked for repossession use license plate readers as a matter of course. Data collected by private companies isn't subject to county or city ordinances restricting retention and usage.

Before the surveillance cameras or license plate readers are put into the field, the City Council has created a subcommittee to pen a privacy ordinance that will cover current and future technologies, Mueller said. The proposed ordinance is expected to outlaw private companies from using license plate readers in Menlo Park, he said.

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