Network of License Plate Readers 'Delivering Results' for San Francisco PD

June 12, 2024
The San Francisco Police Department has roughly 100 Flock cameras live, with another 300 expected to be installed by July, and the technology has become a valuable crime-fighting tool.

A new network of high-tech cameras has begun photographing thousands of vehicle license plates as drivers zip through San Francisco intersections, building a vast database of information that police say is already leading to arrests on a daily basis.

About 100 of San Francisco's new automated license plate readers are now live, with another 300 to be installed by July. While police say the technology, which is contracted through the company Flock Safety, has fast become a valuable tool in crime fighting, privacy advocates are wary of its dragnet approach and warn about risks for abuse.

On Wednesday, three months after Mayor London Breed and other city leaders celebrated the inaugural Flock camera installation on Ninth Avenue and Irving Street, officials described suspects who have been captured with the help of the devices.

They included the May 13 arrest of a woman wanted in an organized retail theft case; the May 3 arrest of three suspects in a San Francisco State University carjacking; and the Saturday arrest of a suspect wanted in a sexual assault case by San Jose police.

"This new technology is just one new tool we are using that is helping us make San Francisco safer for all, and it is delivering results," said Breed, who introduced legislation last year to get the cameras installed.

The Flock network is separate from the speed enforcement cameras being installed in San Francisco this year. Flock is not used for moving violations or traffic citations, and it doesn't use facial recognition technology, officials said.

The Flock system works with police databases of suspect vehicles, including those used in Amber Alerts, compiled from departments all over the region, said Holly Beilin, a spokesperson for Flock Safety.

When a camera gets a hit on a wanted vehicle's license plate, it immediately sends a notification to local law enforcement. Alerts are delivered via an app on a cell phone, an email or on the screen of a patrol car, Beilin said.

While the cameras, which are powered by solar panels, aren't exactly hidden, Beilin said, most cities, like San Francisco, choose not to openly disclose their locations to avoid vandalism. San Francisco police are one of more than 5,000 departments across the country that use the system. Others in the Bay Area include the San Mateo, San Jose and Vallejo police departments.

Breed, a moderate running for her second term, has made public safety a centerpiece of a tough reelection campaign, pointing to recent crime reductions as evidence that legislation and law-enforcement crackdowns introduced under her leadership have paid off.

It's unclear to what extent any of these local actions have moved the needle, as cities across the country have recently witnessed widespread drops in crime.

Evan Sernoffsky, a spokesman for San Francisco police, said that while the department didn't have an immediate estimate of Flock-assisted cases, "we're making arrests every day based on it."

Noting research that shows that vehicles are used in 70% of crimes in the U.S., "just having that (plate reader) information is hugely beneficial," Sernoffsky said.

But criminal suspects, of course, make up only a small percentage of drivers, noted Dave Maass, director of investigations at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"They're not able to just say 'we're collecting data on criminals,'" Maass said. "They're collecting data, in fact, on innocent people going about their lives."

Maass said the technology could easily be abused in the wrong hands. It could potentially be used, illegally, to spy on protesters, political rivals or journalists.

There are additional concerns about such data being breached in a cyberattack, Maass said, or errors that lead police to mistake the identity of a suspect. Maass pointed to the the 2009 case of Denise Green, a 47-year-old Black woman whom San Francisco police pulled over, handcuffed and pointed guns at, based on a license plate reader's misread of her plate.

Sernoffsky said the license plate technology is one tool in an entire criminal investigation and can help police avoid pulling over innocent people who happen to be driving the same car as a wanted suspect.

Police "can be a lot more precise about the cars they're pulling over, and the suspects they're arresting, and a lot faster," Sernoffsky said.

The Flock camera system was funded by a $17.3 million grant from the state's Organized Retail Theft Grant Program.

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(c)2024 the San Francisco Chronicle

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