LOS ALTOS HILLS (CBS SF) — A Bay Area town is moving forward with installing automatic license plate readers (ALPR), in the hopes of combating and preventing crime.

There are currently 10 ALPRs that are operational in Los Altos Hills, and 30 more should be up and operational by sometime in February, according to a town management analyst.

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They are placed at every street entrance into Los Altos Hills, as well as numerous other streets within the town, says the management analyst. They run 24/7, and the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office will be able to use the ALPRs as tools to investigate crimes.

“We hope that it’ll keep people safer, we hope it’ll dissuade people from committing crimes in our town,” resident Rajiv Bhateja said. “We have very few burglaries per year, but we have very few homes.”

Bhateja has been a big proponent of the idea for several years and helped introduce it to town leadership.

“Our community tends to be what we call a target-rich environment,” he said. “I feel that if we can make our town and the world a little bit safer, that’s a good thing for everyone.”

Los Altos Hills has partnered with Flock Safety to implement the cameras.

“Our technology is designed to capture objective evidence. We take pictures of the back of a car as it drives by, from that, we use machine learning to identify what type of car it was – make, model, color – unique features like bumper stickers, roof racks, aftermarket wheels, and also importantly, identifying the license plate itself,” Flock Safety’s Josh Thomas said. “They’re indiscriminately capturing the objective data of vehicles.”

Some residents expressed concerns about privacy.

“I’m not convinced we really have a problem. I find it an invasion of my privacy,” said a Los Altos Hills resident who didn’t want to be identified. “I am just very concerned about privacy issues, and I also have concerns about racial profiling.”

Thomas explained their technology only captures still photos of the vehicles’ rear license plates and characteristics.

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“We are capturing vehicle information. Not people. There’s no facial recognition. We’re not collecting anything about humans. It’s just about the back of a car – and in fact, we don’t even know who’s driving the car.”

However, Los Altos Hills residents will have the option to opt out. They can submit a form online, proving their vehicles are registered to an address within Los Altos Hills, and then the system will not record data on those vehicles.

Bhateja believes in the ALPRs.

“It’s only supposed to take pictures of rear license plates, and only still photos. So, it can’t be used for moving violations, for speeding, for stop signs, and all of that,” he said. “The sheriff, when they access the information, have to have a case number. They have to have an investigative reason as for why they’re looking at this data.”

According to the town, the ALPR cameras have three major benefits:
• The physical presence of a camera and accompanying street signs indicating recording is in process can limit crime occurring in the first place.
• After a crime has occurred, the data which has been recorded can give law enforcement leads for investigations.
• The cameras have the ability to send instant notifications to law enforcement when a vehicle of interest has been identified.

A spokesperson for the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office provided KPIX 5 with the following statement:
“The Sheriff’s Office is excited to support the Town of Los Altos Hills in the implementation of License Plate Readers (LPRs). LPRs will help the Sheriff’s Office in using technology to enhance prevention and solve crime. We are committed to using all available resources to enhance the safety and security of residents in the Town of Los Altos Hills.”

Los Altos Hills isn’t the first municipality in the Bay Area to use Flock’s technology.

“All over the Bay Area,” Thomas said. “Morgan Hill, Benicia, Vallejo, Colma – all up and down the Peninsula, North Bay, East Bay.”

Los Altos Hills residents who’d like to opt out can do so here.

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Max Darrow