Automated license-plate readers have helped fight crime, Redlands police say, ( Electronic Frontier Foundation )

A Redlands police license-plate reader’s detection of a car used in burglaries led to a chase, crash, the arrest of three suspects and recovery of stolen property, and now officers would love to know who in the area might have caught something useful on their surveillance cameras.

“This is exactly why we want neighbors to register their cameras,” said Assistant Police Chief Travis Martinez, referring to a new voluntary survey of private security cameras in the city. The initiative is one of the department’s recent tech-related additions, which include:

— A $20,800 State Homeland Security Program grant in September for four drones with thermal imaging cameras.

— $147,623.77 in automated license-plate readers for Mountain Grove and the Citrus Plaza area. Approved in August, they were partly paid for by a $100,000 donation from Tom Bell Auto Group.

These aren’t the first cameras or drones police have used, and Martinez said they have been invaluable tools for crime solving. The license-plate cameras, he said, have caught about 20 vehicles involved in crimes, including residential and commercial burglary, nighttime window smashes at restaurants, and hit-and-runs. Another new technology, GPS tracking, has helped police catch hundreds, he said.

Should residents be concerned?

According to the ACLU, public conversation, consideration of the costs versus benefits, and policies to prevent misuse and protect rights are important when dealing with governmental surveillance technology. Surveillance could enable high-tech profiling or undermine trust in law enforcement.

“Communities must be equal partners in any decision about the use of surveillance technology,” the group's website states. “They need to know when and why surveillance is being considered, what it is intended to do, and what it will really cost — both in dollars and in individual rights.”

In 2016, the group provided a step-by-step guide to approach surveillance proposals.

An ACLU map from July of that year listed Redlands as having 140 video surveillance devices, on which it spent $1,244,711 with no public debate and no public policy.

Martinez said cameras, especially in downtown, have been up for more than a decade. Since then, with the rise of social media, the department has found it easier to loop the public in on conversations, he said.

“We’re not trying to be sneaky, whatsoever,” Martinez said.

Redlands resident Mike Layne, who registered his cameras with the department, said that with the policies now in place, he wasn’t worried about privacy from any of the department's surveillance technology.

“The reality is if you’re not committing a crime, you have nothing to worry about,” he said.

In 2017, before launching its first drones, the department set down rules and sought the public’s input. In 2018, before expanding the number of automated license-plate readers beyond one, officials again had a public forum. Martinez acknowledged that some residents were concerned about privacy.

One of the biggest concerns was that the department would keep years worth of license-plate images, he said.

“That's not the case,” Martinez said. “We’re only doing it for 30 days.”

At the forum and on social media, residents shared worries. Who was doing the watching? How easy are the license-plate cameras to hack?

The department’s policy requires officers to have a case number or a reason to search the database so “it’s only used for criminal investigations,” Martinez said.

Police are taking the public’s concerns into account, he said.

“I think everybody that has posed questions, they have been happy with our response,” Martinez said.

The new private camera survey, dubbed Surveillance Monitoring Initiative for Law Enforcement (SMILE), has safeguards. Registering does not give police direct access to the camera, nor the ability to view footage without consent. It just allows officers to know whom to contact. The information is kept confidential.

Those protections give Layne peace of mind.

“I’m a libertarian, and normally I worry about Big Brother watching everything,” he said, “... but the S.M.I.L.E. program doesn’t give them permission to access your cameras 24-7.”

Layne and Martinez like how SMILE streamlines the process.

“It makes the initial investigating officer more efficient and effective,” Martinez said.

For instance, if there were a vehicle burglary at 3 a.m., police could pull up a map on a computer and send an email to those in the area asking whether they had any relevant footage. If they did, they could be asked to contact the investigating officer.

“What we have to do right now is go knock on every door,” Martinez said. “We either have to wake you up at 3:30 in the morning, or, say it’s in the middle of the day, then people aren’t home.”

Video footage has helped police on many investigations, including the hit-and-run death of a popular school crossing guard and a 2011 shooting outside a downtown bar.

“We captured that murder on the surveillance camera,” Martinez said of the shooting. “After two days, detectives released the video, and within a couple of hours somebody called and identified the suspect.”

Those with cameras or who plan to buy them can register them at cityofredlands.org/camerasurvey. Martinez encourages anyone with concerns to email him at tmartinez@redlandspolice.org.

(c)2019 the Redlands Daily Facts (Redlands). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.