Will Manhattan Beach Welcome Visitors with Surveillance Cameras and Automatic License Plate Readers? How Unneighborly is That?

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Editor’s Note: The City of Manhattan Beach, CA is considering installing “community” cameras and Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs) at key entrance and exit points to the city. The cameras and ALPRs will be recording all vehicles coming into or leaving Manhattan Beach 24/7.  The justification of course is “community safety,” and the justification for installing the surveillance equipment at the city’s borders is that outsiders commit most of the burglaries in Manhattan Beach. The city points to a number of other California communities that have installed ALPRs, but, an analysis by CityLab showed that “Automatic plate-readers catch few terrorists or violent criminals, but do plenty of harm to low-income communities of color.”

TAKE ACTION: If you live in Manhattan Beach or nearby, NOW is the time to weigh in! Make a comment on the city’s website by 5 p.m. Sept. 9th

Testimony by Joan Engelhaupt, resident of Manhattan Beach:

I belong to Neighborhood Watch, so you know I value my safety and security as much as anyone here.  When we talk about installing license plate readers and surveillance cameras at the major streets entering our city, I feel… scared.  It sounds pretty Big Brotherish to me.  I’ve lived in a country where when you moved to a neighborhood, you had to go register at the local police precinct.  It made me glad I would eventually be returning to America, a country whose citizens would never tolerate such invasive government surveillance.  I become scared when I think of living in a surveillance state.

I understand that there are already many cameras trained on us.  The building that houses my gym has closed circuit TV, and that’s OK with me.  ATM’s have cameras, and that’s more than OK with me.  I think it’s the notion of a branch of the government monitoring my innocent movements that scares me, because the government and the police possess infinitely more power over me than my gym or ATM, and history has shown us all too many examples of that power running amok.

I understand the fear of losing our tangeable assets, our electronics, jewelry, cash, etc.  I have had my home burglarized, and I was extremely upset about  losing the stuff I’d worked for.   But I’m even more fearful of losing the intangeable asset of freedom from government surveillance that is an American value.   The electronics and jewels can, after all, be replaced, but not so our freedom.

Some of the online comments on this issue have cited the deterrent effect of signs warning of security cameras and license plate readers.  I’m wondering, only semi-facetiously, if we couldn’t maybe compromise on this and put up the signs but skip the spying on the innocent as well as the suspicious, at much less cost.   And if you doubt that you are under suspicion, consider that the LAPD evidently considers people suspicious, as they have refused to release data on their ALPR’s on the grounds that whether or not used in criminal investigations such data is investigatory in nature and therefore must be withheld from the public.   Other police departments which have released findings on the efficiency of ALPR’s reveal “hit” rates like those of the Rhinebeck Police Department in New York:  0.01% of the 99,771 plates scanned in a three-month period, or 0.08% for the 70,289 plates scanned during a ten month period by the High Point PD in North Carolina.  As you can see, I did do some research on this—that’s how disturbed I am by this proposal.

I mentioned at the outset that I belong to our Neighborhood Watch and so get weekly crime reports covering the whole city.  Got one just this afternoon.  Of the ten break-ins reported, 40% occurred because a car was left unlocked or a house window left open.  Maybe we could more efficiently lower our crime rate by educating our residents about securing their homes and cars.  Such an approach would not endanger anyone’s civil liberties.

Joan Engelhaupt is a resident of Manhattan Beach, she attended the town hall meeting to register her concerns with the proposal and ask questions. Had they allowed testimony at the meeting, this is what she would have said.