PITTSBURG — Local law enforcement agencies are planning to spearhead a collaborative, interconnected system of wireless cameras and microphones on Highway 4 and Interstate 80 after a noted increase in freeway shootings in recent years.
The project, which has been dubbed the “Freeway Security Network,” will wirelessly combine cameras, automated license-plate readers and microphones in an effort to “provide law enforcement with real-time access to investigative leads,” according to city documents.
The Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office, Caltrans and California Highway Patrol will work with the county Sheriff’s Office and police in Pittsburg, Antioch, Hercules, Pinole, Richmond and San Pablo on the regional security system. All agencies signed a memorandum of understanding in October to work together on the regional network.
The system is intended to address highway shootings on Highway 4 between Pittsburg and Antioch and on Interstate 80 between Richmond and Hercules.
“This will secure the freeways and ensure inter-operability between police departments,” said Dustin Saylor, chief executive officer of Odin Systems, which was the contractor for Pittsburg police’s project. “If there is a connection between each department that has video surveillance, for them to be able to share information on the fly is important.”
One of the technologies involved, Shotspotter, is a system of microphones that are designed to listen for the sound of gunfire and triangulate the location after it is heard.
Initial funding for the project will come from a $3.5 million grant from Caltrans. The grant has been offered to the agencies, but has not been finalized. The city of Pittsburg will spearhead the project and provide the electrical power for the network.
According to city documents, the project was inspired by Pittsburg’s use of video cameras and a license-plate reader project, which were installed in police cruisers and throughout the city through a federal Department of Justice grant. Technology provided by Odin Systems allowed officers to even view the surveillance cameras through their Android or Apple smartphones when they aren’t in the office.
In 2016, Pittsburg went further and installed 14 cameras and six automated license-plate readers on Highway 4, which have captured 42.3 million images of license plates traveling through the city. According to police, this has netted 160 arrests and assisted in the recovery of 162 stolen vehicles.
Privacy advocates have sounded alarms at privacy concerns around automated license-plate readers and the potential misuse when such a significant amount of information is collected on average citizens and shared through regional and sometimes national databases.
“What we found in our research is that a lot of these agencies are sharing them with hundreds of agencies around the country,” said Dave Maass, an investigative researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group based in San Francisco.
Maass and his colleagues found that seemingly unrelated law enforcement agencies, like the police department of Zebulon, N.C., could view California’s license-plate reader information.
The ACLU, which partnered with EFF on the project, estimated that less than 0.2 percent of plate scans were linked to criminal activity or vehicle registration issues.
“The law says they have to use the data for the same reasons authorized in their policies, but when asked, every agency that accesses the data is in charge of policing itself,” Maass said.
The team also found that the Oakland Police Department disproportionately used license-plate readers in communities of color.
The city of Antioch has also installed cameras in the Sycamore Drive area as well as East 18th Street and Cavallo Road. Antioch shares its data with Vigilant Solutions, a private contractor, which had collected 2.2 billion license-plate photos as of last year and was selling the information. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement offices in Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago, among others, have used the Vigilant Solutions database.
Antioch shares data with 591 agencies around the country, on the low end, Maass said. Who else is in that database?
“Even Zebulon, North Carolina,” Maass said.
The city of Pittsburg will vote on whether to approve the “Freeway Security Network Project” at its Dec. 18 City Council meeting.
To view a list of automated license-plate reader policies, visit www.eff.org/pages/california-automated-license-plate-reader-policies