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Despite the police department illegally sharing data from its license plate reader program, the city voted to expand the department's program. Photo by Steve Puterski
Despite the police department illegally sharing data from its license plate reader program, the city voted to expand the department's program. Photo by Steve Puterski
Carlsbad Cities Crime News Region

Carlsbad expands police department’s license plate reader program

CARLSBAD — The Carlsbad Police Department will expand its automated license plate readers program after receiving approval from the City Council during its May 10 meeting.

The council also agreed to replace the police department’s 17-year-old computer-aided dispatch system, which includes purchasing in-car video systems for 60 vehicles.

The approved initiatives combined will cost the city $4.2 million. 

The city’s police force came under fire in January after it was revealed the department violated state law in sharing data from its license plate reader program with other law enforcement agencies outside of California, according to an inewsource story.

However, during the meeting, none of the council members questioned police officials or made any public remarks outside of the council’s chambers regarding the department’s alleged violation of state law, which only allows law enforcement agencies to share data with agencies in California. 

According to Cpt. Bryan Hargett, Carlsbad Police will add 43 new cameras to its inventory — nearly doubling the size of the city’s program since its inception in 2017— at a cost of $1.4 million. When the program was established five years ago, the police department had 51 fixed cameras and six mobile readers in police vehicles.

The council also directed staff to bring back an item to increase the number of police vehicles with mobile cameras. 

Hargett and Lt. Jeff Smith praised the usefulness of the specialized camera as a crime-fighting tool, noting nearly all murders in the city have been solved, at least in part, by these types of devices. Additionally, the cameras have been used in welfare checks and cases of theft, assault, missing persons and more.

“They only capture fixed license plates,” Smith said. “The rear of the plate. There is an MOU (memorandum of understanding) between each agency we share data with. Data is retained for one year unless part of an investigation.”

Carlsbad police illegally shared data from its license plate reader program with agencies outside of California, according to an inewsource report.
Carlsbad Police Department, along with other North County law enforcement agencies, illegally shared data from its license plate reader program with agencies outside of California, according to an inewsource report released in January.

Resident Vicky Syage criticized the police department’s license plate reader program, questioning the council for spending additional funds on cameras, which puts more stress on the budget.

Syage said the council held an April 20 meeting to discuss a projected budget deficit by the Fiscal Year 2024-25, so it makes little financial sense to appropriate more money to the program.

However, not all the money allocated to the two programs will come from the general fund. For instance, the video system will use $1 million from the city’s technology investment capital fund.

Regardless, Syage said it made no sense to replace and expand the program because the cameras are not under warranty. She also questioned the number of hits from the program compared to actual cases.

In previous meetings regarding the program, privacy advocates have cited concerns with data management, recording and access. 

Syage said the police department’s improper data-sharing activities violated residents’ trust. 

“It shouldn’t have taken a journalist to find this out,” Syage said. “Bring back three to four clean audits before asking for more money.”

Carlsbad Police provided limited data for Smith to present to the council regarding the program’s effectiveness. According to Smith, the license-plate readers averaged 6.1 million hits per month but there was little information showing how many of those instances led to an arrest, trial or conviction.

Hargett said since the program began, 430 stolen cars have been recovered with 470 arrests, along with cracking an organized retail theft gang.

According to city policy, Carlsbad Police must conduct monthly and biannual audits for the license plate readers.

“Obviously, safety is No. 1,” said Mayor Matt Hall. “Every tool you can give an officer magnifies what they can do. I’ve never seen a tool so powerful as license plate readers.”

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