By Breeana Greenberg
To aid in public-safety efforts, the City of Dana Point will install automated license plate readers across the town that can identify stolen vehicles and automobiles involved in major crimes and AMBER Alerts.
The City Council voted unanimously on May 17 to approve a contract with Flock Safety for the installation and maintenance of the automated license plate readers (ALPR). The readers will be mounted at intersections across the city.
“Public safety is a key priority of this council and the community, that comes back every time we do a community survey,” Assistant City Manager Kelly Reenders said. “It’s been top of mind for all of our residents to have a safe environment to enhance and maintain public safety, and using innovations in technology to aid law enforcement and proactive crime prevention is important.”
If a stolen vehicle license is captured by the ALPR in Dana Point, police services would get a notification informing them of the stolen vehicle.
“It’s a tool that’s going to be invaluable for investigative purposes,” said Lt. Kirsten Monteleone, chief of Dana Point Police Services. “A couple of weeks ago, we had a stolen vehicle that was located in Baby Beach.”
By her own estimates, Monteleone said that about 90% of the stolen vehicles that come to Dana Point “are here to conduct vehicle burglaries, residential burglaries—things of that nature—or robberies.”
In the event of a crime, the police services can use the ALPR database to look for vehicles in the vicinity of the crime scene, Monteleone said.
“Let’s say, we have a crime that occurs in Dana Point and we don’t even have a license plate related to this vehicle—we have a truck with some ominous sticker on the back; we can actually enter that into the search database and then it could pick out possible vehicles,” she explained.
Monteleone added that these cameras could have provided an assist in the search for Noah Clare, the missing Tennessee boy, and his teen cousin, Amber Clare, last November.
“The Flock system can help locate license plates associated with AMBER Alerts,” Monteleone wrote in an email. “Yes, it could’ve helped with the Noah and Amber Clare incident. They did, however, abandon their vehicle.”
The cameras are solar-powered, and data is encrypted and will be stored for up to a year. The data can also be shared across cities that contract with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach, Seal Beach, Buena Park and Fullerton have all implemented an automated license plate reading system with Flock Safety, according to the city’s staff report, though they do not contract with OCSD.
Stanton and Laguna Hills, which both contract with OCSD, currently use the ALPR program, with Lake Forest and Laguna Niguel in the process of installing the system as well, according to Monteleone.
According to the staff report, “the ALPR cameras would be positioned to capture the Objective data available through an image of the rear of the vehicle only and not data or images of the occupant(s) of the vehicle.”
The cameras capture still images only and can only be accessed by trained OCSD personnel. The process to access data is “controlled and documented,” according to the staff report.
“It’s an investigative tool for us to use to solve crimes,” Monteleone said. “It’s not a database that is owned by Flock. This information is strictly owned by the City of Dana Point.”
“The only people that can access this are staff members that are properly trained, that work for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department,” Monteleone continued. “Flock doesn’t own the information. It is strictly a photograph that’s taken of either the front or back of the vehicle.”
The system does not connect with the California Department of Motor Vehicles or any third-party database, according to the staff report.
License plates captured by the ALPR system would be referenced against the Stolen Vehicle System list from the California Department of Justice and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and it would notify law enforcement for stolen vehicles, felony vehicles, and AMBER Alerts.
The sheriff’s department has a strict policy regulating who can use the ALPR data, Monteleone stressed. Policy 463 regulates who has access to the data and how the information can be used.
“The only people that are allowed to use it are sworn personnel with the sheriff’s department,” Monteleone said. “You have to be properly trained; the tools that it’s used for, it’s only used for law enforcement business. We’re not going to be using it for expired tags or parking tickets. It’s for stolen vehicles, major crimes, missing persons, things of that nature.”
Monteleone added that the ALPR data can be used “in conjunction with routine patrol operation for criminal investigations,” and reasonable suspicion or probable cause is not required before using the system.
Mayor Joe Muller asked how the ALPR system is different from the city-owned cameras currently operating throughout Dana Point. Monteleone answered that while existing cameras run video nonstop, the ALPR takes only still photos of the vehicle.
Muller clarified with Monteleone what data is captured and whether that data raises privacy concerns.
“All that data is just purely the backside of the car, (and) there’s no pictures of the passengers inside of it?” Muller asked. “So, we don’t really have privacy issues … we want to be able to track vehicles as they move throughout the city in case they’re involved in some issue.”
As part of the first phase of installation, the city will place:
- Two cameras on Coast Highway and Palisades—eastbound and westbound
- One camera on Camino Capistrano and Via Canon—northbound
- Two cameras on Pacific Coast Highway and Dana Point Harbor Drive—eastbound and westbound
- Two cameras on Stonehill and Del Obispo—eastbound and westbound
- Two cameras on Golden Lantern and Acapulco—northbound and southbound
- Two cameras on Pacific Coast Highway and Niguel Road—eastbound and westbound
- One camera on Pacific Coast Highway and Crown Valley—westbound
- Two cameras on Crown Valley and Sea Island Drive—northbound and southbound
- One Camera on Seven Seas and Crown Valley—eastbound
The Monarch Bay Terrace Property Owners Association Board of Directors requested one of the 15 cameras included in Phase 1, and it agreed to pay the annual cost of the camera. The camera will be located at Seven Seas and Crown Valley in the median facing out of the neighborhood.
According to the staff report, the effectiveness of the placement of the initial 15 cameras will be evaluated after Phase 1 is complete.
The contract allows for an additional 10 cameras to be installed if the evaluation deems Phase 1 a success and that additional cameras would improve the program. If results of Phase 1 are unsatisfactory, council can discontinue the program.
“This is an annual contract, right? Should something go wrong with this, or we decide we don’t like either the way it’s managed, or the way it’s working, we can walk away from this, right?” Councilmember Jamey Federico asked.
Cameras will be installed throughout the city in six to eight weeks, Monteleone said.
Breeana Greenberg is the city reporter for the Dana Point Times. She graduated from Chapman University with a bachelor of arts degree in English. Before joining Picket Fence Media, she worked as a freelance reporter with the Laguna Beach Independent. Breeana can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org