Lawmakers want to find out whether police departments are abusing Californians’ privacy rights and gathering information about undocumented immigrants with license plate readers.
They asked California State Auditor Elaine Howle on Wednesday to open an investigation into how law enforcement agencies use the technology, focusing on Fresno, Los Angeles, and Sacramento County.
State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, who introduced the proposal, said his aim was to protect residents’ privacy and ensure their information is being used properly. He also worries law enforcement agencies are sharing information about undocumented immigrants U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, potentially exposing them to deportation.
“When misused, this data and powerful analytics software accompanying it can be used as masked surveillance,” Wiener said.
Howle will conduct the review, which she said is expected to take seven months. The estimated cost is about $370,000.
Dan Gomez, lieutenant for the Los Angeles Police Department, said his office doesn’t store data onto the cloud and safeguards people’s information. stressed the importance of the software.
“We find the information completely valuable from an investigative standpoint,” Gomez said.
Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, encouraged the police departments to embrace the review.
“It’s not an indictment of the work you do,” Monning said. “It’s a partnership to examine systems and review policies. ... We’re not bringing you here to say, ‘Gotcha.’ We want to know how this is working.”
Some lawmakers questioned why Fresno was added to the list of cities.
Sen. Andreas Borgeas, R-Fresno, and Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, suggested Wiener unfairly targeted their district to thwart ICE, which arrested immigrants at the Fresno courthouse last year.
“My concern is this appears to be a benign inquiry,” Borgeas said. “This is being back-doored into the immigration discussion.”
Fresno Sgt. Steve Casto said the city is committed to protecting residents’ privacy.
“Our officers love the service license plate readers provide,” Casto said. “The information is kept for one year unless it becomes part of a criminal investigation. After that, it is purged.”
Wiener said immigration concerns played a role in his decision to bring the audit forward but insisted “it’s not the primary concern we’re doing this.”
“My goal is not to ban this technology, but i think we can acknowledge it should be used the way it’s supposed to be used,” Wiener said.
The Joint Legislative Audit Committee kept the vote open for absent members but had enough support to approve Wiener’s request. Republicans declined to vote, while all Democrats in attendance backed the proposal.