Bay Area Rapid Transit plans to begin putting license plate-reading cameras in its parking lots and structures, after the agency's board approved a controversial measure Thursday intended to combat crime.

Since 2017, the system has seen an annual average of 1,054 auto burglaries, 387 cars stolen and 125 thefts of catalytic converters. Those numbers prompted the board to vote unanimously for a surveillance policy that allows BART to install four cameras that it owns and later pursue a contract for more.

"This really needs to get done and it's long overdue," said Director John McPartland.

Like several of his colleagues, he feared that rising crime has eroded riders' trust in the system.

The board had mulled a privacy policy for months, amid concerns that its data storage administrator, the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), had contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Activists began packing board meetings in 2016 after news surfaced that BART police had installed a license plate reader in the MacArthur parking garage.

At that time, board members decided not to use the equipment until they had approved a surveillance policy. The one they settled on last year requires hearings and new guidelines every time the transit agency purchases a new piece of technology.

So this week, the board passed guidelines for four license plate readers that BART owns. Staff will test those readers in a parking lot and gather data so the board can assess their success in a few months.

The guidelines ban NCRIC from sharing information with ICE or any agency conducting immigration enforcement. They allow the center to store data for up to 30 days unless it's part of an ongoing criminal investigation, in which case it may be retained for a year.

Officials with the transit agency hope that license plate readers will help patrons recover stolen property, which amounts to more than $7 million annually. BART may at some point expand the function of the plate-reading cameras, which could also be used to collect parking fees or validate permits.

(c)2019 The San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.