More than two dozen new cameras with the ability to automatically capture photos of vehicle license plates will be installed across Santa Maria in the upcoming weeks.
The installation comes after the Santa Maria City Council approved a request for updated camera technology from the Santa Maria Police Department.
In a 4-1 decision during a meeting April 20, council members voted in favor of acquiring 31 Automated License Plate Reader cameras from Flock Safety. The new technology will cost the city around $240,000 to implement and will be installed on street poles, street lights and attached to police vehicles. Gloria Soto, the councilwoman from district three, voted against the measure but did not provide an explanation.
Officials from the Santa Maria Police Department anticipate the new technology will aid criminal investigations and reduce crime rates, particularly vehicle thefts. Between 2019 and 2020, SMPD saw a 66% increase in car thefts and estimated that about 70% of crimes involve the use of a vehicle, Police Chief Marc Schneider told the council.
“The license plate readers support the city’s philosophy of ‘smart city, safe city,’” Chief Schneider said. “Leveraging this technology will afford the police department an opportunity to address criminal activity in a resourceful and efficient manner.”
Officers expect the plate readers to be installed within the next 30 to 60 days and strategically placed in areas around the city with higher rates of stolen vehicles and crime, Chief Schneider said. He added that the cameras will not act as traffic or red light cameras, and the system does not contain any immigration enforcement or facial recognition software.
The new plate reader cameras will be used in conjunction with the department’s existing Operation Blue Watch surveillance cameras that were deployed in 2015. Eventually, the plate reader system will replace all of the city’s surveillance cameras.
To address privacy concerns, Chief Schneider assured the council that the video and images collected by the cameras will be uploaded to a secure, password protected cloud server and deleted after 30 days.
A similar plate reader system is currently in use by the Santa Barbara Police Department to enforce parking throughout the city. The system is attached to one parking enforcement vehicle, which travels around and scans license plates to track the amount of time a car is parked in one area. The system also has the ability to check license plates against plate numbers logged in the stolen vehicle database.
Currently, the SBPD does not have widespread plate readers deployed on street poles throughout the city.
In October 2020, the Santa Barbara City Council unanimously approved the installation of plate readers at the downtown, waterfront and airport parking lots, expanding the use of the technology to monitor parking in other areas of the city. The new technology will replace traditional parking kiosks by reading license plates when a car first enters the lot and charging the driver accordingly when exiting.
According to Rob Dayton, the city’s transportation and parking manager, the plate readers are still being installed in the new parking areas across the city. Mr. Dayton expects that by the fall, motorists will notice that the gates in the parking areas will open automatically for cars who have been parked for less than 75 minutes, and anticipates full automation early next year.