A plan to install 400 automated license plate readers at 100 intersections in San Francisco is getting fast-tracked after a request by Mayor London Breed to expedite necessary legislative changes. 

Breed is proposing the city use part of a $17.3 million state grant that is meant to reduce retail theft to fund the new cameras, but that will require approval from the Board of Supervisors under a city law that usually requires an initial 30-day waiting period and then two committee hearings to approve changes to an existing policy. 

Breed said Tuesday the waiting period was not necessary because license plate readers already went through that process and are currently used in the city, but technical changes like what kind of files are stored and which vendor is used must still be approved. 

“These license plate readers can play a critical role in disrupting retail theft, car break-ins, sideshows, and other criminal activity. But our current laws inhibit, rather than support, the expansion of public safety tools like license plate readers ... There is no reason for delay.” 

Mayor London Breed

“Public safety requires us to be nimble and quick to adapt to use new technologies,” Breed said. “These license plate readers can play a critical role in disrupting retail theft, car break-ins, sideshows, and other criminal activity. But our current laws inhibit, rather than support, the expansion of public safety tools like license plate readers. We must do everything we can to get these cameras deployed as quickly as possible. There is no reason for delay.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California opposes automated license plate readers and urges against their widespread use. The organization did not respond to a request for comment on the city’s new proposal by the time of publication. 

The legislative changes proposed by Breed would allow for changes in the vendor that maintains the digital files, which type of files are used and stored, allow vehicle theft abatement funds to complete the purchase, and would give law enforcement more access to other databases to identify stolen vehicles, according to Breed. 

A game-changer?

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott called the camera network a game-changer

“The SFPD will be able to more easily identify vehicles and suspects wanted in some of our most pervasive and challenging serial crimes, like retail theft, auto burglaries, vehicle theft and catalytic converter theft to name just a few. These cameras will also help our officers be more precise in the vehicles they pull over, which will reduce unnecessary stops, and assist in our ongoing efforts to build trust with the communities we serve,” Scott said.

There were 562 vehicle thefts in San Francisco in August, the last full month reported by the city’s open data portal.

The SFPD launched what it described as a “blitz enforcement operation” in October to devote more officers to stopping retail theft. Some of the grant money will also go toward that enforcement effort.