While other local towns, aiming to reduce crime, have opted to install automatic license plate readers and gunshot detection services, the Menlo Park City Council veered in a different direction at its Sept. 26 meeting.
Menlo Park Police Department Chief David Norris said the devices have proved useful in solving crimes from homicides to thefts, and to locate vulnerable missing people, such as elderly dementia sufferers.
Four community members spoke at the meeting of their concerns about data collection practices and oversight with Flock Safety automatic license plate readers (ALPRs). They mentioned problems that ranged from identifying information to the collection of data that could harm someone, such as a visitor coming to California for reproductive care that could result in prosecution in their home state.
Mayor Jen Wolosin said that she hadn’t seen the city do enough outreach to the American Civil Liberties Union, a watchdog organization, and communities of concerned residents.
Norris said that the data was widely not used. Flock ALPRs only use one-tenth of 1% of data collected, and the rest is deleted, he said.
“I'm also thinking about the cost to civil liberties and privacy that have been expressed by members of our community and the ACLU,” Wolosin said. “If it's such a needle in a haystack, how are we then showing the need for this? (How are we showing) the benefit of this, given the cost to privacy, leaving ourselves more vulnerable to data hacking and whatnot.”
The Menlo Park council cited the price of deploying Flock cameras, which is not currently in the city budget. The system would cost an initial $284,900 for installation of 36 cameras and then $251,000 annually to lease them. The ongoing cost was hard to stomach when the city is already in a deficit-spending situation.
“This technology, specifically in our community, is so ubiquitous that every day our own license plates are probably read dozens of times,” Council member Drew Combs said.
Combs added that he did not see the value in a large-scale rollout given the ongoing monthly cost of about $20,000.
The idea was floated to install ALPRs and the accompanying gunshot detection only in areas that experience higher crime rates, but that brought up issues of equity.
Council member Maria Doerr said that she was concerned that focusing cameras and gunshot detection devices on communities that have historically seen higher crime rates could highlight inequity in Menlo Park's neighborhoods. Doing so "doesn't lend itself to being more effective and to being equitable for our community."
Several council members brought up last year's incident of a gunfire exchange on Windermere Avenue in Belle Haven, where a security camera captured footage of the shooting.
Vice Mayor Cecilia Taylor offered the idea of only installing gunshot detection citywide, as gunshots don't just occur in only one area of the city, an idea that the council wanted to explore further.
The council decided not to consider installing ALPRs unless new data proves their efficacy in deterring crime. There was no support for deploying gunshot detection on its own, but city staff will continue to assess the devices and explore CCTV as an option for resident safety.