The San Diego Police Department is promoting the use of smart street lights and automated license plate recognition technologies to conduct investigations and improve police response and public safety.
The new technologies are proposed to be included in the city’s surveillance ordinance, which requires city council approval for technology used to monitor and identify individuals.
If the Smart Streetlight and ALP Recognition technologies are eventually adopted by the city, annual reports outlining their purpose will be required. The newly created privacy advisory board will also have to sign off on and oversee police use of the new technology.
Captain Jeff Jordan, of the SDPD Chief’s Office/Legislative Affairs and Special Projects, has been making extensive public presentations explaining the need for and advocating the use of the new smart street lights and ALP recognition technologies by police.
“We are holding meetings to solicit public feedback and comments that will be translated into a community impact report to be presented to what is now known as the Privacy Advisory Board,” Jordon said. “The PAB will be tasked with hearing that information and saying it’s a good idea – or rejecting it – in its recommendations to the City Council.”
The Smart Street Light Project began as a cost-saving effort by the city to replace energy-intensive street lights with more efficient LED lights. Many of the 3,200 smart streetlights installed in public spaces across the city were also equipped with sensors used to generate processed data, including pedestrian and vehicle movement, along with parking, as well as standard environmental measures for temperature, pressure and humidity.
The use of data from Smart Streetlights began in 2018. But this practice was stopped after two years of use in 2020 due to legal concerns that their implementation could violate privacy rights.
“From a police department’s perspective, the Smart Streetlights and ALP Recognition technologies are really powerful tools,” Jordon said, adding, “But they raised all sorts of concerns because policies and procedures for their use weren’t immediately developed.”
Jordan noted that the SDPD has 125 hits covering 350 square miles. He said police had studied where 500 Smart Streetlight cameras could best be placed to “have the greatest immediate impact on crime”.
In the two years that Smart Streetlight data has been allowed for police use, Jordon noted that there have been clear cases where a review of the data has revealed crimes. He gave one example where a downtown homicide recorded by a Smart Streetlight camera confirmed that a man accused of a shooting death was actually acting in self-defense.
As for ALP readers, Jordan noted that they “take a snapshot of license plates that tells us the make and model of the car.” But he added that ALP readers “don’t tell us who the driver is or the registered owner or who the passengers are. In short, it does not give us personally identifiable information.
Jordan said ALP readers had also proved helpful. “Using this data has been very helpful for us in identifying suspects,” he said, adding that ALP Recognition is also used in databases to search for stolen vehicles or in Amber Alerts to search for missing or abducted children.
The use of new technologies for smart street lighting and ALP Recognition could also help with SDPD’s ongoing staffing shortage. “We have approximately 1,850 employees in the city right now,” Jordan noted. “We are the second lowest staffed department, behind only San Jose, for a city of more than 500,000 people.”