Controversial license plate readers installed in Carlsbad

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- One week after their installation, controversial license plate readers in Carlsbad are already making a big impact for police.

Fifty-one fixed cameras placed in some of Carlsbad’s biggest intersections along with six patrol vehicles donning the new devices have been cracking down on stolen cars.

“This is just a way for our officers to enhance their visibility. We’re doing the same thing an officer can do out in the field, we’re just using technology to help them do that,” said Carlsbad Police Lt. Jeffery Smith.

In a Facebook post on Tuesday, the department said the readers led them to the capture of a car thief as recently as this week.

Since the cameras were installed on Dec. 20, police said there have been at least three instances in which the cameras alerted them to a stolen vehicle in the area.

  • Dec. 22: Police were alerted to a stolen car near State Street and Carlsbad Blvd. Officers responded and found the car occupied by two suspects. The suspects ran off but were caught and arrested. The vehicle was returned to its owner.
  • Dec. 22: A reported stolen car was seen in the area of State Street and Carlsbad Blvd. Officers responded to find the occupied vehicle in the area of Laguna Drive The driver fled from police, driving the wrong way. Police abandoned the chase out of concern for community safety.
  • Dec. 26: Cameras reported a stolen car in the area of College Blvd. at Tamarack Avenue. Officers found the car in the area of Cay Dr. One person was arrested and the vehicle was returned to its owner in San Marcos.

Police said they scan the back plates against national databases for stolen cars, Amber Alerts and missing people. They’ve seen car thefts in the area on a steady incline since 2010 and felt they needed to do something.

Critics, however, have voiced privacy concerns with how long personal data is stored and who has access to it.

One Facebook user commented, "Got to love the police state. Let's outsource all of our safety and security to police agencies. Heck, why not put cameras in our homes...for our own safety, of course."

Another user questioned what happens to data collected by the cameras: "What happens to records of license plate numbers that weren't involved in a crime? Are they retained forever or deleted as soon as they are not linked to a crime?"

The city said at least 200 agencies in California are using the same technology, with a success rate of almost 90 percent in solving major crimes.

Police say the information gathered is stored for one year before being deleted. While the camera could capture images of drivers, typically it only catches license plates.