Nov 8, 2023 - News

Breed pushes to expedite approval for license plate readers

Photo of London Breed speaking from a podium, surrounded by police officers, at a press conference

San Francisco Mayor London Breed speaks during a press conference at San Francisco Police headquarters on April 13. Photo: Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

San Francisco Mayor London Breed has requested that the Board of Supervisors expedite the approval process for installing 400 new automated license plate readers across the city.

Why it matters: The San Francisco Police Department is already approved to use the technology under a $17.3 million state grant for combating organized retail theft. But actual deployment could be held up under a local ordinance that requires a second round of city approval.

Details: The 2019 ordinance prevents deployment of certain technologies or adjustments to how they're used unless it clears additional hearings.

  • In this case, that would include an examination of possible vendors and formats for storing video files.
  • The process normally takes six to nine months, but Breed has asked Board President Aaron Peskin to expedite the process so it can be approved in a few weeks, which he has agreed to do.
  • An initial hearing could happen as soon as Monday, allowing the board to hear the ordinance shortly after.
  • Without a waiver of the normal 30-day period that must pass before any action is taken, it's likely that the legislation would not reach the full board until next year due to the activities around the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit as well as the upcoming holidays.

Between the lines: SFPD already went through this process for initial authorization of license plate readers. But because the prescribed technical language has now changed, it must adhere to Administrative Code 19B, which was enacted chiefly to restrict facial recognition technology.

  • That restriction drew heavy support from privacy advocates who say technological tools must be carefully analyzed before deployment for law enforcement purposes.

The big picture: While overall crime in San Francisco dropped between 2019 and 2022, SFPD data shows the city experienced a 42% increase in car thefts.

  • The trend was recorded in other major cities throughout the country, but San Francisco in particular has faced criticism as restaurant and store closures increased due to concern over crime.
  • Installing a network of license readers would be a game-changer, according to police chief Bill Scott, allowing the SFPD to more easily identify vehicles and those suspected in serial crimes like retail theft, auto burglaries, vehicle theft and catalytic converter theft.

Of note: Breed has announced a public safety ballot measure that would allow police to bypass the city's current approval process during pilot periods of certain types of surveillance equipment, such as drones, for up to one year.

  • Current laws "inhibit, rather than support, the expansion of public safety tools like license plate readers," Breed said in a statement released yesterday. "We must do everything we can to get these cameras deployed as quickly as possible."

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