The City of Carlsbad Police Department’s use of license plate readers has raised questions about what exactly they record, how the technology works and what happens to the data. Below are answers to these questions and a link to the staff report and a video of the City Council discussion. Your trust is important to us. If you or your neighbors are concerned, we’d be happy to talk with you about it or schedule a neighborhood meeting. Call 760-931-2105 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to set something up.
Why does a city like Carlsbad need license plate readers?
Although Carlsbad’s crime rate has gone up the last two years, it is still lower than other cities in the region. That is at least in part because our Police Department is equipped with the training and equipment our officers need to keep the community safe. Technology is a big part of that. We’ve been using license plate readers for the past six years on police vehicles. This plan will expand the use to more cars and some fixed locations.
What exactly will the license plate readers record?
They automatically detect license plates and record the number, an image of the small portion of the car that surrounds the plate, and date, time and location.
Will they record people or other identifying information?
Will having the license plates recorded give the police access to registration or other DMV records?
What happens to the license plate numbers?
They are compared to a database of vehicles that have already been identified as wanted vehicles connected to felonies (stolen vehicles, Amber Alerts, etc). If a match is found, the police are notified.
Will the readers capture images of all vehicles entering the city?
No. They’ll be placed along main thoroughfares, not at every location where cars enter the city.
Can people easily hide their plates using sprays or cellophane?
No. These techniques interfere with license plate readers used for toll roads, but do not affect the readers we’ll be using.
Is it legal to record license plate numbers?
Yes, license plate numbers are not considered private. DMV records are not.
Who has access to what information?
Police officers have access to the license plate information. DMV and other personal information is not part of the license plate reader system. That information can only be accessed by an authorized police employee who has a legitimate law enforcement purpose, whether or not a license plate reader has captured a license plate number.
Why are license plate readers helpful?
They have been used to help locate stolen cars, for Amber Alerts and to connect a series of crimes. They are also intended to deter crime. The license plate information is only one part of a police investigation, but having it available in a database significantly decreases the amount of time it can take to solve a crime. This, in turn, means our officers are more available to serve the community.
How many are you buying, and where will they be used?
The city originally had four vehicle mounted readers (in 2011). With the new purchase, we will have a total of eight. The city will also outfit 14 locations in the community with multiple readers each (locations are listed in the staff report) for a total of 51 fixed location readers.
What do you say to people who are concerned about privacy?
We understand that people have concerns. We recently started using body cameras and had dozens of meetings with community members and groups about that technology and how it will be used. We plan to do the same with the license plate readers, meeting with residents and business owners to make sure they understand how this technology works and to answer their questions.
How will the police make sure this data is not misused?
This has been a big topic for local law enforcement. We understand people have concerns about the security of data and how it is stored and used. The license plate reader database is not linked to any other databases or information. Only officers conducting investigations will have access to the data, and there are strict state and federal laws about how it is used. After one year, it is erased.
Some people suggest using the money for the cameras to hire more police instead. What’s your reaction to this idea?
Having enough police officers on the ground is critical, but without access to information, we will always be at a disadvantage. Our goal is to use technology to help our officers keep the community safe in the most effective way possible.