Calif plan to use COVID relief funds to combat smash-grab robberies already sees major red flags

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City council members in San Jose, Calif., have voted to approve spending some of the federal COVID-19 relief money received on license plate readers in a bid to curb a spike in so-called “smash-and-grab” robberies of retail outlets.

Members voted unanimously to allot $250,000 towards the technology from $18.3 million in funds received via the American Rescue Plan signed by President Biden earlier this year.

A push for funding LPRs came initially from Mayor Sam Liccardo in response to several smash-grab robberies in downtown San Jose, Santana Row, and Valley Fair in recent weeks. During such robberies, bands of thieves rush into businesses and clean out shelves and display cases then run back out to waiting vehicles and escape.

Liccardo wrote in a memo that the technology would “enable SJPD to better deter and make arrests in armed ‘smash-mob’ burglaries and robberies, auto thefts, and drive-by shootings,” but he added that the data collected from the readers will not be shared with federal immigration authorities.

“Where culprits are attempting to evade the license plate readers, all the better because that’s a very clear warning, when we see folks covering their license plates, that those are drivers that should be pulled over,” noted Liccardo.

Asst. Police Chief Paul Joseph told Bay Area KPIX that the model of plate reader has not yet been decided, but that it will probably be a stationary type of unit that can be moved to various parts of the city.

“We absolutely are going to take into account crime all throughout the city, and not just in any one particular spot,” Joseph told the outlet.

The San Jose assistant police chief went on to tell the local outlet that plate readers purchased by the management of Grand Century Mall led to several suspects being arrested in an area-wide ring of purse snatching.

The plate-reading technology isn’t new in the city. One south San Jose neighborhood put in privately funded readers, attaching them to a number of residential buildings. And and San Jose Police Department mounted a small number of them on patrol vehicles starting in 2016.

But not everyone is thrilled with the idea of plate readers.

Dave Maass, director of investigations at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, said he did research on police use of the LPRs throughout California and discovered that the San Jose department scanned and stored 1.6 million plates last year, and of those, just 1,509 were plates of interest to police investigators for a ‘success’ rate of .089 percent.

“You hear that they’re going to be spending a quarter-million dollars on license plate readers. I’m like, it’s not a great use of money,” Maass told KPIX.

He went on to say that plate readers are not very effectively managed by police departments and that often they are abused by jealous ex’s who are spying on former partners and lovers. And in other instances, false matches have resulted in wrongful arrests which can then led to expensive legal settlements.

He also does not think that the readers are going to be much of a deterrent to smash-grab mobs.

“I think when you have clever criminals like that, license plate readers are not going to deter them. I think that if any of your viewers think about license plate readers for more than five minutes, they will think about a way that you can get around them,” he told the outlet.

“Because license plate readers are very good at capturing information on innocent people, but maybe not so good at capturing information on people who are willing to break the law,” he added.

Jon Dougherty


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