A Chula Vista Police vehicle drives down Fourth Avenue. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Chula Vista Police Chief Roxana Kennedy did not know that her own department shared license plate reader data with federal immigration officials for the last three years.

Apparently, when the police department entered into an agreement with Vigilant Solutions to use its database back in December 2017, someone simply clicked a “share all” button. The police chief said she just recently learned that Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Customs and Border Protection were part of the more than 800 law enforcement agencies that were given access to Chula Vista’s data.

“I blame myself,” Kennedy said during a meeting with the Community Advisory Committee on Jan. 14. “I didn’t even realize that there was ICE and Border Patrol on there.”

Last month, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the Chula Vista Police Department entered into an agreement with Vigilant Solutions in late 2017 to store and share data collected from four cameras mounted on patrol vehicles.

That data includes photos of any vehicles the cameras capture and information about each vehicle’s location, date and time. That data is uploaded to a database where more than 800 law enforcement agencies can look up vehicles by license plate number, partial plates or a vehicle description like make, model and color of a car.

Before revelations of the police department’s agreement with Vigilant Solutions, the city’s mayor, elected officials and residents were unaware of its existence. The City Council was not asked to approve the purchase of the cameras or subscription to the database and the program was never talked about in a public meeting.

To be clear, the police department was under no obligation to seek approval from the City Council. That’s because a rule in the city’s municipal code states that departments must get City Council approval only for items worth more than $100,000. In this case, the cameras and subscription cost $89,000.

The fact that federal immigration officials have access to Vigilant Solution’s database wasn’t exactly a secret. Multiple news outlets, including Voice of San Diego in 2018 and 2019, have reported that local law enforcement agencies including the San Diego Police Department have previously shared license plate reader data with federal agencies, including Border Patrol, through Vigilant Solutions.

Following the Union-Tribunes reporting, Mayor Mary Casillas Salas announced that the police department immediately stopped sharing license plate reader data with ICE and Customs and Border Protection. The mayor also asked for a “full vetting” of the program and for the police department to write a report.

During the Jan. 14 Community Advisory Committee meeting, Kennedy described revelations of the surveillance program as an opportunity to find the right balance between maintaining public safety and respecting the public’s privacy concerns.

“Whenever anything comes forward like this, it gives us an opportunity to do a deeper audit into everything and that is what we’re doing now,” Kennedy said. That deeper vetting is happening three years after the police department began its partnership with Vigilant Solutions.

During the same meeting, the police chief said she supported more public forums where concerned residents can learn about the surveillance program and the department can respond directly to those concerns.

Kennedy described the license plate readers as a valuable crime-fighting technology that helps recover stolen vehicles and assists officers in investigations.

According to the police department, the license plate readers got 180 “hits” on vehicles of interest between January and November of 2020. Vehicles of interest include stolen cars, or vehicles wanted in conjunction with a crime.

Activists at the meeting called it a step in the right direction. They were particularly pleased with the police chief’s support of more public forums.

“That transparency opens up the possibility for a much more accountable process,” said Pedro Rios, director of American Friends Service Committee – San Diego.

But activists said there are still civil rights concerns surrounding the program even now that the police department has stopped sharing with ICE and Border Patrol.

“Someone who is a resident, who has a business, or is simply driving through the city can have their license plate captured with this program and have it shared with 800 agencies,” Rios said. “An individual might not have committed any crime, but there is no telling how that information could be used.”

The fact that the city’s own police chief didn’t know about sharing data with immigration officials, activists said underscores the need for responsible oversight, he said.

Chula Vista has maintained that the program or its sharing license plate reader data with CBP and ICE does not violate the letter of SB 54, the California Values Act, which prohibits local law enforcement agencies from sharing personal information with federal immigration officials. That’s because license plate reader data is not considered “personal information,” under that law.

Activists say, however, that the program violates the spirit of a law meant to limit cooperation between local police departments and federal immigration agencies. The partnership with Vigilant Solutions, activists argue, undermines the community’s trust in its police department.

The City’s Response, or Lack Thereof

Although Salas initially said the report on the program would be ready by January, she wants to wait until July to host a public forum – a move activists called “unacceptable.”

During a Dec. 8 City Council meeting, Salas announced that the department would no longer share data with ICE or Customs and Border Protection and called for a report on the program. Salas said it was particularly important to get all of the facts straightened out.

“There’s a lot of speculation about what’s collected and how it’s shared and so therefore when this report comes back in January, I hope there will be a full vetting of this so that there can be some level of comfort in the technology we are using in order to enhance the public safety of our community,” she said.

But during the Jan. 5 City Council meeting, the mayor said she’d rather wait to hold a public hearing until July. The rationale behind that decision was that she’d rather discuss it during an in-person meeting instead of a virtual one.

“We will not bring this back to the Council until we can have an open meeting and hopefully the COVID crisis will allow us to begin having those public meetings in July of this year,” she said. “So I am requesting the public’s patience. But this is an item of such importance that we really believe that a lot of community input and input in public is needed.”

Activists are not happy with that decision.

“That’s not acceptable because every day our data is being captured without our knowledge or permission,” said Margaret Baker of South Bay People Power, a local activist group that supports undocumented immigrants and speaks out against the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

Baker has been critical of the city’s decision not to let members of the public speak or be heard during City Council meetings – not just about this topic but during the entire pandemic.

Chula Vista is the only city in the South Bay where residents are not directly listened to during the “Public Comments” section of those meetings.

In National City, the city clerk reads every letter and email out loud. The clerk, who is bilingual, also reads the comments written in Spanish. In Imperial Beach, residents call on the phone and speak directly to the mayor and Council.

In Chula Vista, a city with a significantly larger budget than National City and Imperial Beach, the clerk simply tells the mayor and Council members how many comments were received and gives them a brief overview of their contents.

The mayor and Council members can read the comments themselves, but the public listening to the meetings do not hear what is being commented on.

For example, during the Dec 8 meeting, City Clerk Kerry Bigelow said, “the majority of the comments are expressing concern regarding license plate reader technology. There is one comment that is speaking in support of the technology and the remainder of the comments are expressing concern.”

That system silences the people, according to a joint letter submitted by South Bay People Power, Rise Up San Diego, San Diego Immigration Rights Consortium, Alliance San Diego, American Friends Service Committee – San Diego and more than a dozen other local advocacy groups.

“We feel our voices have been muted,” the letter states. “We want our comments to be HEARD – not just tabulated by the City Clerk in what feels dismissive of the time and effort it has taken for us to be informed, formulate cogent responses, and respond in the 1,500 character-limit allotted in an e-Comment.”

The letter goes on to request multiple virtual “listening sessions,” to give the public a chance to learn more about Chula Vista’s surveillance program and voice their concerns.

That letter was sent Dec. 18 to the mayor, Chula Vista City Council members and the police chief. To date, Kennedy has been the only official to respond to the letter, Baker said.

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