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A view of the East Orange Avenue freeway exit in Chula Vista / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The first speaker at an event billed by the city of Chula Vista as a community forum on its license plate reader program wasted no time getting down to business.

Fiona Tang asked what percentage of all license plates collected by the police department’s Automated License Plate Reader Program are tied to actual crimes. She also wanted to know whether the department would change its data retention policy from one year to one day because of new state legislation.

She waited for someone to answer.

Police Chief Roxana Kennedy had opened the forum by assuring attendees that “this is truly a time to have open dialogue as we discuss community expectations and safety” – but neither Kennedy nor any of the other officials listening, including Police Capt. Phil Collum, Capt. Eric Thunberg, City Attorney Glen Googins and Mayor Mary Casillas Salas, answered Tang’s question.

No one spoke.

Instead, 12 seconds of awkward silence were broken by City Clerk Kerry Bigelow, who said Tang wasn’t going to get any direct answers that night.

What was billed as a “community forum,” turned out to be a listening session, Bigelow explained. City staff planned to listen to community concerns and incorporate them into a staff report that the City Council would get on April 20.

That came as a surprise to residents who’d waited months to ask questions of police and city leaders following the revelation that the Chula Vista Police Department had been sharing license plate reader data with federal immigration authorities for three years.

The forum had been considered a big deal because other than a poorly attended Community Advisory Committee meeting on Jan. 14, the only way the city accepted questions from the public was through email or a comment portal on the city’s website. And city staff haven’t read any of those comments out loud or answered them directly.

“My understanding is that we will accept all of the input, take that into consideration,” she told Tang. “If there are any questions that need to be answered, we’ll ask you to reach out to the police department staff, they’ll be happy to answer your questions.”

Members of the public who had waited more than an hour to ask questions and raise concerns were not happy with Bigelow’s answer. They expressed disappointment and frustration over the situation.

The most pressing unanswered questions related to a March 23 staff report that revealed people within the police department and city attorney’s office knew that the police department was sharing license plate reader data with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement as early as April 2020. But the mayor and City Council were not aware of it until December 2020.

Sophia Rodriguez, another resident, said the forum was a missed opportunity for the city and its police department to start rebuilding trust.

“The way to earn that trust from the community is to answer our concerns,” she said.

The public wanted a full account of how Chula Vista could call itself a “Welcoming City,” while simultaneously sharing data from its license plate reader cameras with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection. They also wanted to understand how the police shared this data for three years without the mayor, City Council or even its police chief knowing.

“We can’t understand how it could have happened in the first place,” said Margaret Baker. “We can’t understand how it went unchecked for three years.”

Unanswered Questions

During the forum, Thunberg gave the public a presentation about the license place reader program. The presentation was nearly identical to the one he gave the City Council during a March 23 meeting.

The presentation stressed that CVPD stopped sharing its license plate reader data with ICE and CBP in December, that none of the data captured by the cameras contains “personally identifiable” information, that CVPD officers undergo a two-hour training before using the system and that detectives need to provide a valid reason for using the system, like providing the specific case number of an investigation that prompts them to search for a specific vehicle or location.

Thunberg also mentioned that the department had conducted an audit of the license plate reader sharing list and removed more agencies from the list.

Specifically, CVPD stopped sharing with the Honolulu Police Department, the Missouri Police Chiefs Association and two mysterious agencies that department staff could not verify as legitimate law enforcement agencies: HTU and SOSINK.

Thunberg explained that even though the Honolulu Police Department is a recognized law enforcement agency, cars don’t usually travel from Chula Vista to Hawaii. The Missouri Police Chiefs Association, Thunberg noted, is not a law enforcement agency and therefore doesn’t engage in criminal investigations.

The presentation did not, however, address serious questions about why the mayor and City Council did not learn about the data-sharing until December 2020 even though individuals in the police department and city attorney’s office knew as early as April 2020, according to a March 23 staff report.

The report states that the ACLU filed a records request for a list of agencies CVPD was sharing data with. That list included ICE and CBP. According to the staff report, the police department sought legal advice from the city attorney’s office about whether this violated state laws like SB 54 and SB 34, which limit coordination between local police departments and federal immigration authorities

It is unclear specifically who in the police department reached out to the city attorney’s office because the staff report does not say.

But it is clear that a couple of months later, in July 2020, the police department asked the City Council to buy more license plate reader cameras. The Council approved the request during the July 28 meeting. None of the elected officials who approved the item asked questions about the program.

Previous news reports show that the mayor and City Council were unaware of the data-sharing with ICE and CBP until December.

So this new timeline established by the city’s own staff report shows that someone at the police department and city attorney’s office knew of the sharing in April, requested additional cameras in July and that the City Council approved the new cameras without knowing about the data-sharing.

Although the March 23 staff report contains information about the April 2020 outreach to the city attorney’s office, it was omitted from the presentation Thunberg gave to the public on April 7.

Personal Information

The city has spent the last few months alleviating concerns about immigration enforcement. Officials have reminded the public that CVPD officers do not enforce immigration laws and are trained not to ask for people’s immigration status. Same goes for city staff.

Thunberg’s presentation stated that the license plate readers do not capture personal information, nor do they take images of individuals in the cars. They only take photos of the license plate.

Part of the presentation also demonstrated just how effective the police department’s license plate reader system is as a crime-fighting tool.

He described the system as “one of our department’s most valuable tools for investigating and solving crimes,” and noted that officers and detectives use the system, “on just about every case that we investigate.”

Thunberg gave two anecdotal examples of how useful this system was in helping them arrest the suspect of a fatal hit-and-run and a suspected child molester.

The fatal hit-and-run happened “several years ago,” when a woman was hit by a vehicle while jogging, he said. There were no witnesses.

Detectives looked through security camera footage of nearby businesses and found a white pickup truck. The footage didn’t capture the truck’s license plates, but detectives noticed an orange traffic cone sticking out of the truck bed.

They then used the license plate reader database to search for white trucks near the location of the crime. They found an image of a white truck with an orange cone sticking out. That image gave them a license plate number. Detectives used the license plate number on a DMV database to find the name and address of the truck’s registered owner.

It was an impressive example of detective work that led to the arrest of someone suspected of a serious crime.

But in an immigration context where federal law enforcement officers are looking for people suspected of nonviolent immigration violations, the technology becomes much more concerning.

Law enforcement agents can use the license plate reader system to find a photo of a license plate and then use a separate database to link that car to an individual.

The database of the private company that Chula Vista contracts with, Vigilant Solutions,  contains a wealth of information that detectives can use it to predict where a vehicle will be.

Specifically, if the cameras capture multiple images of one vehicle, detectives can analyze the specific time of day and location of where each image was taken to get a comprehensive idea of that vehicle’s movements.

That’s what happened in Thunberg’s second example, in which detectives were looking for a suspected child molester who kept driving different vehicles to avoid detection.

Detectives got an anonymous tip about the suspect’s latest car, he said. They looked up the car on the Vigilant Solutions database and found several hits. They used those hits to get an idea of where the car was at certain points throughout the day to predict where it would go.

Once they had that information, detectives waited in the right spot for the suspect to drive by.

It was an example of an effective use of the technology that helped arrest someone suspected of molesting children. But, critics fear, it could also become a playbook for how to ambush undocumented individuals.

Going Forward

The City Council will discuss the license plate reader program during the April 20 City Council meeting.

City staff will present a second report about the program – this one will include community input from the April 7 meeting.

Additionally, the public will again have a chance to speak directly to the City Council. For the first time since the pandemic shut down in-person meetings, Chula Vista will allow members of the public to line up outside City Hall and come in to ask questions and raise concerns.

“We really urge you to come with particular questions,” Salas said at the April 7 forum. “It’s good to listen to opinions but they need to be based in fact and we need to provide you the facts as much as we can.”

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