PIEDMONT -- Whether or not to install vehicle license plate readers at strategic city entry and exit points -- and if so, how many -- was the hot topic at the Piedmont Public Safety Committee meeting at City Hall.
Last year, the City Council gave the committee the task of investigating ways to fight the rising crime rate, including the use of license plate readers and formation of neighborhood watch groups. Crime was up 20 percent in 2012 over the previous year, according to police Chief Rikki Goede.
Committee member Lyman Shaffer gave a brief update on neighborhood watch.
"We are making a concerted effort to reach out to people," he reported. "Thirty-plus meetings are in the works."
Last month, Goede presented the City Council with three options for the license plate readers: installing 24 readers for full coverage of the city; phasing in the cameras over two or three years; or choosing 10 or 12 installation sites at major ingress and egress points and in higher-crime areas.
"Personally, I endorse the third option," Goede told the committee and about 20 residents who attended the April 4 meeting. "We need to be prudent about what we spend our money on."
The license plate readers would cost about $1.1 million, not including installation. To clarify how the system works, Goede showed a video of police in Long Beach using the readers. The video showed how police are immediately alerted about a suspicious vehicle by a camera in their car. The camera shows not just the plate number but the model and color of the car as well.
"What the readers do is take pictures of every vehicle that passes by," Goede said. "It allows us to know who is coming in and out of Piedmont."
If the license plate matches that of a suspicious vehicle, such as a stolen car, sex offender or felon, it automatically pops up on a "hot sheet," and police investigate. The reader takes two pictures, one of the plate and one of the vehicle. The driver can be seen also, but not clearly enough to be identified.
"The system is a tool -- it's not the end-all and get-all," Goede said. "But it gives police definitive leads to follow up on that we're not getting right now."
Goede added that many cities in the East Bay, including Oakland, Emeryville and San Leandro, already have license plate readers.
"That allows police in neighboring cities to work in tandem to catch crooks," she said.
Public Safety Committee Chairman Michael Gardner said he'd heard three concerns from residents.
"Why not put it to bid, instead of recommending 3M for supplying the readers?" Gardner asked. "How effective are the readers in reducing crime? And why spend the money now?"
Goede said that 3M -- a high-tech company out of Knoxville, Tenn. -- has been vetted by the CHP and U.S. Homeland Security Department and is widely used by law enforcement.
"Only law enforcement can access the data, not people such as bounty hunters," Goede said. "We don't have that with other companies."
Goede said it's hard to measure the success of the readers.
"In Tiburon, they saw a 50 percent reduction immediately," Goede said. "But it's just one leg of the three-legged stool. We also need police work and community involvement."
She added that it's a powerful tool to know who is going in and out of the city.
"Solving crimes is one of the best crime deterrents," Goede said.
Sue Lin, a public safety committee member, asked where the readers would be placed and if criminals will simply avoid the streets where the readers are located.
"They will be placed at key entry and exit points in the city and in key areas of crime," Goede said. "They are very unobtrusive. The average person is not going to notice it."
One audience member was concerned about privacy.
"There is now a reduced expectation of privacy, I accept that," he said. "My concern is that we are creating a police state. I'm uncomfortable with that."
Brian Rodrigues, IT manager with Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, which stores the data, said the information is kept in a secure facility.
"It is only used by law enforcement," Rodrigues said. "We keep it for one year, then it is purged and shredded."
Mark Herrick, who lives in Baja Piedmont, where 25 percent of the city's crimes occur, urged members of the committee to support the readers.
"This has the solid support from 440 homes in Baja Piedmont," Herrick said. "Let's do everything we can to fight crime. I ask that you support this wholeheartedly to the City Council."
Vice Mayor Margaret Fujioka, who is the City Council's liaison with the Public Safety Committee, said she believes the readers would be a great crime deterrent.
"The readers will be used in solving cases, thereby bringing down the crime rate," Fujioka said. "The beauty of this is that it's a pilot program. If it's successful, we can expand it."
Shaffer suggested that the committee take the police chief's recommendation on license plate readers and proceed with the third option mentioned previously.
"But let's revisit the issue in six months and see whether it's working or not and if we want to expand the system," Shaffer said.
Gardner said he would draw up the committee's recommendation to City Council, adding that he would include the proviso of looking into lease options for the license plate readers.