Mark McDermott

Manhattan Beach surveilance cameras increase arrests, raise concerns

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Manhattan Beach surveilance cameras at Aviation Boulevard and Marine Avenue. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

by Mark McDermott 

On a Wednesday afternoon early last December, Manhattan Beach Police Officer Wil Pereira was on motorcycle patrol when a call came through dispatch that a stolen van had just entered the city. A camera at 45th and Highland, part of the MBPD’s Automated License Plate Reader system, had received a ping. The van had been reported stolen a week earlier in Los Angeles. 

“I happened to be on a motorcycle in the area and lo and behold happened to be face-to-face with the driver of the vehicle at Marine and Highland as he approached,” Pereira said. “He was going southbound on Highland and I was going west on Marine.” 

Pereira remembers that the van was “very normal looking,” just a white Chevy, a workingman’s van. The guy at the wheel by all appearances was on his way to a work site. He was in his mid-50s and wore a white t-shirt. 

“Like a construction worker,” the officer said. 

Before Pereira could even flip on his siren, the van took a right on Marine and pulled in front of a garage a few houses down towards the beach. The motorcycle officer pulled up right behind him. 

“He gives me this look, like ‘Oh my god,’” so I light it up, and before anyone can come and back me up, the guy pulls out and continues west on Marine, towards the ocean,” Pereira said. 

Periera gave pursuit. The van took a hard right on Ocean Drive, smashed into a parked car on 26th and Ocean, which stopped it momentarily, but the driver disengaged the van from the car he’d rear-ended, then punched the pedal to the floor, laying down tire tracks as he screeched forward. Pereira said he was doing 60 mph down Ocean, which is a block from the beach and looks more like an alleyway than a street, densely packed with houses. 

“He just keeps on going…I’m yelling from my radio [for backup] and from my PA,” Pereira said. “He makes a right hand turn onto Rosecrans from Ocean, but takes it too hot, too wide, and runs into a concrete pole.” 

Pereira pulled up behind the wreckage, thinking, “Okay, here we are. Now I just have to wait for everyone.” 

“But lo and behold, he climbs out the passenger side window,” the officer said. “I’m like, ‘What is going on here?’ Okay, so the foot chase is on.” 

The man didn’t get very far. As Pereira and his fellow officers arrested the man, he was still kind of amazed. 

A stolen van flagged by Manhattan Beach’s ALPR system that resulted in the arrest of a man with burglary tools last December. Photo courtesy MBPD

“What surprised me most about this guy —  he’s in his 50s, and he’s wearing a safety vest,” he said. “You see this and you see the van and he looks like a construction worker who must be on his way to a job site. It’s the middle of the afternoon. A routine patrol officer wouldn’t give that vehicle a second look.” 

But a look in the back of the van revealed it had been stripped clean, and instead of construction tools were the tools of the burglary trade —  bolt cutters and pliers. They pulled up the man’s information, and learned he was on parole and had a long rap sheet, consisting mostly of property crimes. He was a professional criminal, and now he was on his way back to prison. 

It was the second arrest Pereira had been a part of in less than a month that was the result of an Automated License Plate Reader hit. On Nov. 9, the ALPR system pinged a stolen Toyota coming into town on Sepulveda Boulevard. Officers caught up with it in the Target parking lot. 

“That guy had a gun tucked in his waistband,” Pereira said. “Here’s a guy driving around in a stolen car with a gun. I mean, who does that? He was up to no good, and that is the kind of thing we are able to get with these cameras….It’s a huge force multiplier. We feel like there’s more eyes out in the streets. It’s great.” 

According to MBPD, nearly 100 felony arrests resulted from ALPR alerts since the cameras were installed a little more than two years ago. Most have been stolen vehicles, and many of those were being used in burglaries. 

“These are not young kids joyriding in a stolen car,” said MBPD Officer Kristie Colombo. “They steal cars so they can go commit other crimes. These people —  not all of them, but a lot — are stealing cars because they don’t want to use their own cars for two or three days, or whatever — not knowing that this technology is here in Manhattan Beach. They are driving through and wondering how the heck they got caught.” 

“It’s really like having tons of different eyes sitting at all these intersections running license plates. It’s a huge cost savings compared to what it would take to have officers out there 24/7. It’s pretty phenomenal. We don’t have the actual people power to do that, so it’s really been a huge assistance.” 

The ALPR program was unanimously approved by the Manhattan Beach City Council in Feb. 2017 after a spate of property crime the previous few years. The city hired a company called Vigilant Solutions to install cameras, at a cost of $300,000, at the seven intersections that are the most heavily travelled entry points into Manhattan Beach. 

The ALPR cameras scan every car that goes through the intersections, and a server is set up to alert for several criteria, including stolen cars, missing persons, and felony warrants (both from this and other jurisdictions). If one of those criteria is met, the system pings the dispatch system, where a photo of the license plate in question pops up on a computer screen and is verified as an accurate read by an actual person. 

“We will know instantly,” Colombo said. “It’s not taking a minute. It’s right now.” 

Once the alert is verified, officers are dispatched. The human-eye verification is to reduce error rates. The cameras have an error rate below 1 percent, according to Perceptics, who along with Vigilant Solutions are among the major operators in the ALPR field. But audits of 28 agencies that use ALPR systems conducted by the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center showed a 10 percent error rate. 

This has lead to some problematic incidents. Last November, two brothers returning from a family Thanksgiving dinner were pulled over and arrested at gunpoint in Richmond, California, after their rental car was flagged as stolen by a Vigilent Solutions ALPR. The car had been stolen a few months earlier and then recovered, but the rental agency had not reported its recovery and it remained on the “hotlist” stolen car registry. One of the brothers, Brian Hofer, happened to be the chair of Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission. He has since filed a federal lawsuit arguing the ALPR-based arrest had violated his civil rights, leading to a warrantless search and excessive force in his arrest. “They didn’t check my ID,” he told KTVU News. “They didn’t say, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing, or what’s your name?’” 

Hofer told the New York Times that his arrest was not an anomaly, but indicative of the dangers of ALPR systems. 

“The error rate of this technology is incredibly alarming,” Hofer said. “If one in 10 innocent people end up stopped with a gun pulled on them, that is a lot of potential for abuse.”

Colombo said MBPD’s system has pinged a car that was reported stolen but had been recovered, but not taken off the stolen car registry. Such an error, she said, has little to do with ALPR technology. 

“The only potential thing that has happened before, and it’s very rare, is if someone’s car gets stolen and they didn’t report it was recovered,” she said. “That’s on them, then —  I mean, if your car gets stolen and is then found, call us. Don’t get in and start driving around if you don’t want that to happen.” 

The larger concern over ALPR technology has less to do with error rates than with its potential misuse. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in 2017 the ALPR system in Manhattan Beach captured 16,441,095 license plates; out of those, 5,902 came up as “hits,” or alerts, on the system. 

“That means only .03 percent, not even 1 percent of the plates they captured, were relevant to a crime at the time of the capture of that information,” said Dave Maass, senior investigative researcher for EFF. “They are not just collecting data on suspects’ vehicles, but they are collecting data on everyone, and storing it. That is a big concern.” 

MBPD’s policy is to purge the data after one year. Colombo said the data is strictly used either for alerts or for specific investigations, nothing else. 

“We’ve not got people out there, like Big Brother, watching all this,” she said. “We have to follow policy. It’s not something where you type in a random plate across a random intersection. We don’t have the time or manpower, nor do we care [about data regarding anyone not criminally active].” 

Pereira said the data does prove useful in investigations beyond arrests that happen when ALPR is triggered at one of the intersections. A query in the data doesn’t necessarily need to be tied to a license plate, he said. If a criminal incident occurred and the model or make and color of a car involved is known, a cross reference can be made to identify the license plate and hence a suspect. 

“The system allows us to query into it if we have a description of a vehicle and a timeframe, so we can narrow it down to certain vehicles and create our own leads in investigations,” Pereira said. “Say you have a light blue Honda Civic and you know the direction of travel, but no plates. We can use this as an investigative tool, so it’s all camera captures, not just live captures.” 

But it’s this same capacity —  to store data and be able to extract specific information on individual travel, and even patterns —  that triggers the so-called Big Brother concern. Hofer told the New York Times that this essentially erodes a person’s right to be anonymous in public life. 

“If we allow law enforcement to rewind life and search through our every interaction, our relationship to public life is forever altered,” he said. “And I simply don’t understand the idea that if we use enough technology, we can achieve a zero percent crime rate. I reject that because that’s going to lead to extreme over policing.”

Councilperson Suzanne Hadley, who won election to the Manhattan Beach City Council on a campaign platform that included a call for more ALPRs, said that license plates themselves are essentially public documents. The benefits of reducing crime, she said, far outweigh any privacy concerns she has over ALPRs. 

“I am a privacy advocate,” Hadley said. “But because it’s in public, this seems far less invasive than cameras and facial recognition that people are talking about using, especially in our downtown area. I have far more concern about those than things pointed at vehicles. You need a license to operate a vehicle on a public road, and that seems to be a pretty well-established practice. So my privacy concerns are outweighed by the effectiveness of ALPRs. 

“It works. The chief of police, Derrick Abell, has said [ALPRs] are possibly his number one crime-fighting tool, barring live human beings.” 

Michael Overing, an attorney and adjunct professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism who specializes in privacy rights, said the problem he has with the collection and storage of ALPR data is that it could easily be used not just by police but by a nefarious government or even a private entity such as Vigilant Solutions. 

“Do we want to turn over our law enforcement to private cops? I mean, it’s robocops, and they are getting the data voluntarily [from public agencies],” Overing said. “Yes, they’ve got stationary cameras that are reading every license plate and finding stolen cars going down our streets, but every license plate is being read, every license plate is being captured, and every license plate is being turned over to Vigilant Solutions. Every license plate is now becoming a record that verifies you were driving at that intersection at that time of day. While I’d love to think governments are benign and never use information in a bad way, we’ve got numerous examples over the past 100 years that show that just is not always the case. While I might trust you, I don’t trust Adolf Hitler.” 

Overing said that in the town where he lives, Pasadena, police use Vigilant Solution ALPRs on a roving vehicle that monitors parked cars. 

“You start mapping where those vehicles are located,” he said. “I don’t think the police department is doing this, but Vigilant Solutions is definitely doing that, and getting a general habit index of whose cars are parked where. So by mapping this out, if you know the car and you know the person who owns the car, you get a pretty good pattern of where people are at any moment during the day.” 

“I respect the fact that there are a lot more controls in place than there were in WWII Germany, and I get the fact that nobody likes to use the Hitler example, but can you imagine if Hitler had access to Jewish movement? There are ethical issues that need to be dealt with, and we need to err on the side of more privacy rights, rather than less. It’s really uncomfortable. If we were in a totalitarian state, we would all be more concerned about it.” 

Bob Pinzler, a former Redondo Beach councilperson, in 2001 co-founded PlateScan, one of the first companies that sold Automated License Plate Reader technology. Pinzler said real-time uses have never been a problem, and early adoption of the technology was often for such truly benign purposes as automating parking permit systems. 

“I’ve always said the problem is not the reading of the license plates, because that’s a public document in a public place,” Pinzler said. “That’s not really an issue. The question is what happens to the data, who uses it, and how secure is it?” 

That last question has become increasingly crucial. In fact, Perceptics, the company which purchased PlateScan in 2011, on Tuesday was suspended from its longtime work reading plates for U.S. Customs and Border Protection because the company’s databases were hacked. 

“This is our way of life now,” Pinzler said. “Now we have cyber attacks; what we think is private is not private. We have to deal with the fact that we have the ability to at least not put that information into jeopardy.” 

He said early on, the technology was so specialized that its uses were somewhat limited, but advances now have reached a point where a company called Rekor is able to sell software called OpenALPR that can cheaply and easily transform almost any internet-based camera into an ALPR. Combine that with parallel advances in facial recognition technology, Pinzler says, and you have a readily available apparatus to render privacy all but obsolete. 

“Now you have a much more pervasive issue of privacy,” Pinzler said. 

Non-benign uses of the technology are not imaginary. In perhaps its most extreme use, the Chinese government is already using facial recognition to track an ethnic Muslim minority group, the Uighurs, more than a million of whom are held in detention camps in western China. At a more micro-level, debt collectors and rogue cops have utilized ALPRs for highly personal use. 

“There’s the story of the officer who wanted to know where his wife was, and followed her using the ALPR system —  to stalk her, basically, because they were estranged,” Pinzler said. “So is it possible this technology can be used for bad effect? Absolutely. Is it being used for bad effect? Probably.” 

MBPD, like most public agencies that use ALPR, have checks in place. Data is shared only with other cooperating law enforcement agencies. An audit system tracks every time an officer accesses the California Law Enforcement Telecommunication System, the database that the ALPR uses to set its alerts. But the potential for abuse remains and has caught the attention of state lawmakers, who on June 26 ordered a statewide audit of every agency using ALPRs. Among the ideas on the table is limiting the storage of data to no more than two months except in the cases of ongoing investigations. 

A 2016 Atlantic Monthly investigation found that Vigilant Solutions had by that time scanned more than 2.2 billion license plates and permanently stored 80 million geo-tagged images. Locally, in addition to MBPD, Redondo Beach and all the police agencies on the Palos Verdes Peninsula use ALPR technology. If you drive, chances are your movements have been stored somewhere. 

But somewhere nearby right at this moment is also somebody like the man in the white van who drove into Manhattan Beach in December not knowing his movement was likewise being tracked, and whose arrest prevented at least one crime from happening, and possibly many more. 

“It’s a two-pronged thing,” said MBPD Lt. Tim Zins. “I don’t want Big Brother looking at me, either. But unless we get a bad employee, that information is being used for only one reason —  we are here to stop crime in Manhattan Beach and in the South Bay. And this technology is helping us do that.”

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