How Tiburon’s License-Plate Readers Track Drivers–and Sometimes Track Down Criminals

If you’re going to Tiburon to commit a crime, you might want to take the ferry.

Walk. Bike. But whatever you do, don’t drive. Cameras mounted on the town’s exit and entry points will record your license plate. They’ll send the plate number to a police database, cross-reference it with cars linked to crimes, calculate your movements and … bam! A cruiser is on your tail in no time.

“It’s working magnificently,” said Capt. David Hutton of the Tiburon Police Department. A Long Beach, Calif., police officer demonstrates a license-plate-reading system mounted in a patrol car:

The success of the system is not only of interest to Tiburon and its potential criminals. Across the bridge and down the highway, Piedmont, too, is looking into installing cameras.

That would be no small matter. While there are only two roads in and out of Tiburon, Piedmont has 24. The city got a quote of about $1 million to purchase license readers at all those locations, and that doesn’t include the cost of installation.

In its March 18 meeting, the Piedmont City Council considered a proposal that the license-plate readers be installed at only the most well traveled of the entrances and exits to the city. It ended by asking that the Public Safety Committee collect more information, and it put the matter on the council agenda for May 6.

Tiburon Police Chief Michael Cronin said the license plate-readers have brought benefits to his town. “Our crime crate has gone down since we started talking about it,” he said. “Whether we can attribute all that to the cameras, I can’t say, but I think a lot of it was due to that. The biggest impact has been as a deterrent.”

Those discussions started in 2008. More serious crimes (the ones that fall into Part I, the most serious category of FBI statistics) have dropped by 30 percent since then, he said.

Not that Tiburon sees a lot of violence. “We were getting people breaking into cars and stealing iPads and cell phones, and getting into garages,” Cronin said.

After Tiburon installed the cameras, theft from vehicles dropped from 50 in 2007 to 14 in 2012. The number of stolen cars went from 11 to two in that time.

The most famous crime documented by the cameras was the theft of a bright yellow Lamborghini, reportedly worth $200,000, from celebrity chef Guy Fieri on March 8, 2011.

The plate readers recorded the car entering Tiburon and then leaving it, though it was months before police arrested a suspect in the case—17-year-old Max Wade, who grew up in town.

The plate-reading system cost $113,141 to purchase and $9,889 to operate, Cronin said, and he considers it well worth the money.

But Cronin acknowledged that Piedmont is in a different situation. “Piedmont is dealing with more serious crimes, such as home invasions,” he said. That’s where someone breaks into your house even though you are at home, peacefully watching “Mad Men” or taking a shower.

License-plate readers are not uncommon. Mostly they are installed in patrol cars. Putting them on poles along the street is a fairly recent innovation, though Cronin said Tiburon was not the first to hit on the idea.

The proposal has attracted some opposition, particularly from civil liberty and privacy advocates who fear what could be done with all the data the cameras gather.

Linda Lye, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, is particularly concerned that the Piedmont proposal includes keeping the data for 12 months.

“How, where and with whom I spend my time is my business,” she told KQED’s Stephanie Martin. “Comprehensive location tracking, which is made possible by advances in technology such as these license-plate readers, reveal all kinds of intimate details about a person’s life. Visits to the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, the gay bar, the union hall, the abortion clinic and so on.”

With all the surveillance equipment available to law enforcement agents, they can already assemble a pretty detailed picture of your movements, Lye said.

Tiburon decided to hang onto its data for only 30 days, precisely because of these concerns, Cronin said. He doesn’t think the information is very useful after that time. “I wanted to investigate crimes reported to the police,” he said. “Not a lot of crimes are reported after 30 days.”

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