Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR)
Implementation of ALPR technology should occur by summer 2023. The City of Palo Alto will be contracting with Flock Safety as our ALPR provider.
The Palo Alto Police Department is about to begin using automated license plate recognition (ALPR) technology to deter criminal activity and assist in criminal investigations in Palo Alto. The technology uses a combination of cameras and computer software to scan the license plates of passing vehicles, and provides several potential benefits, including crime deterrence, real-time alerts to police when stolen or wanted vehicles enter an area, and enhanced investigative capabilities when a crime has already occurred.
The Police Department presented a study session to City Council on ALPR technology on October 24, 2022 (read the staff report for that study session here, view the presentation for that study session here, and watch the study session and ensuing discussion here). On April 3, 2023, the Police Department returned to City Council to seek their approval of implementation of ALPR technology (read the staff report here(PDF, 6MB), view the presentation here(PDF, 2MB), and watch the Council item here). Council voted 7-0 in favor of implementing ALPR technology (read the draft action minutes here(PDF, 142KB), starting on page seven).
Explore this web page to learn more about our forthcoming use of ALPR technology and the privacy safeguards we have put in place (following the recommendations of the American Civil Liberties Union; see their report below), and to ask questions about ALPR technology via the web form at the bottom of this page.
What is ALPR and how does it work?
ALPR technology uses a combination of cameras and computer software to scan the license plates of passing vehicles.
These computer-readable images of license plates allow the police to compare plate numbers against plates of wanted vehicles and vehicles associated with wanted persons and missing persons.
ALPR cameras will be positioned at fixed locations in Palo Alto to capture rear license plates only and are not designed to capture images of vehicle occupants or utilize facial recognition technology. To derive maximum benefit with the fewest cameras needed, cameras are typically placed at strategically-selected locations based on several factors: crime statistics, common vehicular ingress and egress points, and traffic volume.
What problems in Palo Alto does ALPR technology address?
ALPR technology will be used by the Police Department to solve all sorts of crime. Recent years have seen regional increases in catalytic converter thefts, auto burglaries, vehicle thefts and organized retail thefts. And, although still rare, the community has experienced several brazen armed robberies.
Those responsible for such crimes commonly use a vehicle to travel to and flee from the crime scene. Moreover, such offenders often engage in a series of criminal offenses involving multiple jurisdictions and victims, and commonly arrive in a stolen vehicle, a vehicle bearing stolen plates, or a vehicle that law enforcement has previously connected to verified criminal activity.
Identifying stolen or wanted vehicles, via ALPR technology installed at fixed locations, as they enter a target area provides law enforcement an opportunity to intervene before additional crimes are committed, and potentially apprehend wanted persons or recover stolen property. ALPR data also provides investigators with an additional technique to identify, locate and apprehend offenders once a crime has already occurred.
What are the uses and benefits of ALPR technology?
The use of ALPR technology provides several potential benefits, including crime deterrence, real-time alerts to police when stolen or wanted vehicles enter an area, and enhanced investigative capabilities when a crime has already occurred.
Deterrence: Even if officers are unable to locate and stop the vehicle in question, suspects may see the police response and be deterred from further criminal activity. Indeed the mere presence of the ALPR cameras, visibly mounted on public infrastructure and potentially accompanied by signage, may act as a deterrent. Police personnel have reported to staff that some criminals will intentionally target jurisdictions without ALPR technology to increase their chances of successfully avoiding detection while committing crimes.
Real-Time Alerts: When a real-time ALPR alert occurs, notifying police of the presence of a wanted or stolen vehicle, officers can respond to the area to search for the vehicle. If officers locate the vehicle, prior to making an enforcement stop, they visually confirm the plate number and manually check it against law enforcement databases to confirm the accuracy of the ALPR information and the legal justification for the stop.
Solve Crimes Already Committed: In addition to providing opportunities to prevent crime and apprehend wanted persons via real-time alerts, ALPR data can be used by investigators to solve crimes that have already occurred. Commonly, by the time a crime is reported to police, the suspects have already fled the area, and it is the job of police to identify and locate the suspects at a later time. While victims and witnesses can often provide responding officers with a description of the vehicle used by a suspect, those descriptions are frequently incomplete (e.g., a partial license plate number, vehicle type and color only) or consist of a license plate number that corresponds to a stolen vehicle or a stolen plate. Investigators can turn that imperfect or incomplete information into actionable leads by querying the ALPR database.
Regional Coordination: ALPR data sharing among local law enforcement partners allows agencies to collaboratively investigate, identify and apprehend multi-jurisdictional offenders, or those who commit crimes in one jurisdiction but reside in another.
Expanded Searchable Data Set: Private entities (e.g., homeowners associations, shopping centers, individual retailers) utilizing ALPR cameras can also elect to share their data with local law enforcement, to include real-time alerts when wanted or stolen vehicles are captured. The Police Department is informed that multiple such entities exist in Palo Alto, including the City’s largest shopping center. This would be a one-way share of information; a private entity that shares its ALPR data with law enforcement does not gain access to law enforcement data in return. The investigative usefulness of an ALPR system is greatly enhanced as its searchable data set increases, whether from other law enforcement contributors or private entities.
What information is captured by ALPR technology?
The system captures the following information:
- Date, time, and location
- License plate (including the state, the plate number or partial plate number, or the absence of a license plate)
- Vehicle characteristics (the make, model, type, and color)
- A photo of the rear of the vehicle showing the license plate
What information is NOT captured by ALPR technology?
The system is not intended to capture images of vehicle occupants (ALPR cameras would photograph passing vehicles from the rear).
The system does not use facial recognition technology.
Here is a sample ALPR image:
How long is this information retained?
Data captured by ALPR technology will be automatically purged after 30 days, unless a specific record has been identified as relevant to a specific criminal investigation.
Many law enforcement agencies already employing ALPR technology choose to store all data for up to one year or longer. The Police Department believes that a retention period of 30 days is sufficient in Palo Alto.
What sort of privacy safeguards will exist?
The Police Department is mindful of privacy concerns that some community members may have about ALPR technology and the data that it collects. The Police Department took those concerns into account when proposing how the use of ALPR technology could be implemented in Palo Alto, and City Council discussed those concerns and our responses to them prior to authorizing our use of the technology.
Frequently Asked Questions
Don't you already have ALPR technology installed in patrol cars?
The Police Department has one patrol car equipped with mobile ALPR unit. It has had this unit for over ten years, and has recovered stolen vehicles and located wanted criminals as a result. The limitation of a single mobile ALPR is that alerts and data collection only occur when that vehicle is being operated by an officer, which is limited by staffing, calls for service, and other duties. Data is also limited to the route and distance traveled by the single patrol vehicle.
City Council has now authorized the Police Department to contact with Flock Safety to install fixed ALPR cameras at strategically-selected locations in Palo Alto based on several factors: crime statistics, common vehicular ingress and egress points, and traffic volume. The system is anticipated to be live in summer 2023.
Who within the Police Department can access the data?
- Data obtained from ALPR technology is only accessible to properly trained staff with a legitimate law enforcement need, and all queries are logged and subject to audit. This is consistent with decades-long legal standards of access to other law enforcement computer databases, like driver license information, vehicle registration information, and criminal history records. Unlawful use of law enforcement computer databases is against state law, and subjects personnel to civil and criminal liability as well as discipline up to and including termination.
Are neighboring police agencies using ALPR technology?
Other local communities are currently using fixed ALPR technology, including Menlo Park, Atherton, Los Altos Hills, Saratoga, Campbell, San Jose, Los Gatos, Gilroy, Morgan Hill, Milpitas, and Santa Clara, with several other local jurisdictions in the process of implementing the technology. These jurisdictions anecdotally report that, since the deployment of fixed ALPR, they have experienced a marked increase in the recovery of stolen vehicles, as well as investigative success stories attributable to ALPR data.
Where in Palo Alto will the ALPR cameras be located?
- To derive maximum benefit with the fewest cameras needed, cameras are typically placed at strategically-selected locations based on several factors: crime statistics, common vehicular ingress and egress points, and traffic volume. As the ALPR cameras are a law enforcement investigative tool, the Police Department does not intend to provide their locations on this website. If criminals are made aware of the location of the devices in advance, they could take measures to avoid detection by the system.
Are ALPR cameras going to be located in my neighborhood?
- The Police Department has no intention of installing ALPR cameras permanently in residential neighborhoods. However, if faced with a specific crime trend in a particular neighborhood, the Police Department could temporarily relocate an ALPR camera into that neighborhood long enough to address the crime trend.
How many cameras are needed?
- The Police Department believes that about 20 cameras will be sufficient to adequately cover key areas of Palo Alto and provide the flexibility to temporarily relocate cameras if necessary to address a specific crime trend.
How long are you going to store the data?
- Data captured by ALPR technology will be automatically purged after 30 days, unless a specific record has been identified as relevant to a specific criminal investigation.
Does ALPR technology use facial recognition software?
Will ALPR technology capture my picture driving my car?
- ALPR cameras are not designed to capture images of vehicle occupants or utilize facial recognition technology. They will be positioned at fixed locations designed to capture images of rear license plates only.
Does ALPR technology provide constant surveillance of members of the public?
- No. ALPR technology only provides authorized law enforcement personnel with information about a vehicle located on a public roadway for a single moment in time at a single location. This information is only used by law enforcement to provide potential leads to support criminal investigations.
Will the Police Department share its ALPR data with other local police agencies?
- Yes. ALPR data sharing among local law enforcement partners allows agencies to collaboratively investigate, identify and apprehend multi-jurisdictional offenders, or those who commit crimes in one jurisdiction but reside in another. Individual memorandums of agreement between the Police Department and each other local police agency with which Palo Alto ALPR data is shared will be signed prior to the sharing of any data. The Police Department will make readily-accessible to the public the names of law enforcement agencies with whom it shares data by publishing those agencies on this web page. Please check back to this page as we get closer to implementation in summer 2023.
Will ALPR data be used for immigration purposes?
How much does ALPR technology cost?
- The total estimated costs of our three-year contract with Flock Safety to provide ALPR technology is approximately $165,900 (which includes $61,900 for the balance of FY23 and all of FY24, plus $52,000 annually for FY25 and FY26).
If you would like more information about ALPR technology, please see the below links.
ACLU Report: Making Smart Decisions About Surveillance
ALPR Information from the International Association of Chiefs of Police
Watch our ALPR Information Session
Recorded on Thursday, March 9, 2023
Download the Presentation from the March 9, 2023 ALPR Information Session(PDF, 1MB)
Click here to view form.