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Combating premeditated panopticon by Berkeley police

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JULY 13, 2023

Last week, representatives from the Police Accountability Board of Berkeley and the Office of the Director of Police Accountability convened to discuss the Berkeley Police Department’s proposal to implement Automated License Plate Readers, or ALPRs, as a surveillance tool within the city. 

Although the usage of 52 ALPRs was approved by Berkeley City Council in 2021, the plan was abandoned amid scrutiny from many residents. In particular, critics said the technology infringed on privacy rights and could become a slippery slope for approving additional surveillance tools in the future. 

It is undoubtedly important to mention that the city of Berkeley has seen a rise in crime coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic’s throes. We wholeheartedly emphasize that it is of utmost priority to ensure that residents feel secure in their community; however, we as an editorial board would like to raise additional concerns surrounding ALPRs.

First and foremost, ALPRs use both cameras and computer software to survey the license plate of every car driving by. The information is then processed to give law enforcement the ability to track car location and store data indefinitely if they so choose. 

This procedure raises the question of whether or not ALPR implementation violates civil liberties — typically, less than 1% of license plates scanned are attached to vehicles connected with criminal activity. Thus, the system lacks probable cause to closely survey passersby that happen to be photographed. 

Secondly, ALPR trials have shown that the technology has significant faults when conducting scans of nearby vehicles. One randomized control trial conducted in Vallejo showed that shots from both fixed readers and cellular devices had misread rates of at least 35%. 

While it is important to account for shortcomings with regard to the technology, it is equally crucial to examine policing bias that exists outside of ALPRs. For example, in Oakland’s implementation, ALPRs were disproportionately placed in neighborhoods predominantly home to Black and Latine residents. 

When combining all of the aforementioned concerns, we conclude by requesting that BPD move forward with enhanced transparency if ALPRs are implemented across the city.   

We would like to be assured that the data collected by ALPRs will be treated as confidential and safeguarded within BPD. Furthermore, we request that consent be mandated if any city agency attempts to use such data. Finally, we stress the importance of outlining a clear commitment to informing where ALPRs will be located, as well as evidence that these devices are making progress toward bias-free crime detection. 

Without these action items completed, we fear that the current ALPR model may create a city where one is guilty until proven innocent — watched without even knowing.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the summer 2023 opinion editor, Emma Solomon. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

JULY 13, 2023