You are here

An example of an automatic license plate reader by a company called Flock Safety. Submitted content
Scott Steepleton, Editor
9:44 am PDT April 9, 2021

Malibu’s Public Safety Commission is recommending deploying up to eight stationary license plate readers across town, at a cost of $2,500 each per year, for a two-year pilot project to assess their effectiveness in fighting crime.

In the most recent FBI report on crime, statistics from Malibu for 2019 show the following incidents:

Violent crime: 44

Rapes: 1

Robbery: 5

Aggravated assault: 16

Property crime: 416

Burglary: 86

Larceny/theft: 311

Motor vehicle theft: 19

Arson: 3

During a meeting this week via Zoom, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Lt. James Braden told commissioners that the cameras give law enforcement another tool to protect residents.

“There is more and more crime in Malibu, whether you want to face it or not,” he said. “It’s busier than ever in Malibu.”

Millions of visitors come to the town of nearly 13,000 every year, and the criminals are not far behind.

“The tourists are targeted by these groups,” said Braden.

Once the criminals do their thing, they go back to where they came from.

The cameras, placed at places where people come and go — north and south city entrances on Pacific Coast Highway and where the canyons kiss the coast — would record every license plate that passes by, with the data stored for later use by law enforcement. Then, if the Sheriff’s Department gets a tip that a white Toyota truck was involved in criminal activity in Malibu, detectives can look at all the data for the time in question, hoping to find the plate associated with the vehicle and the people who may have been in it at the time of a crime.

The commission majority agreed that the cameras would benefit public safety, voting 4-1 to move the measure to the City Council.

Keegan Gibbs cast the no vote.

The stationary cameras would augment a single automatic license plate reader that has been in use on board Sheriff's Department vehicles in Malibu since 2010.

Det. Lt. Joe Fender told the commission that Calabasas will soon go live with stationary cameras.

“I can mount them at an intersection. I can mount them across from one of the beaches or trailheads that we've been having a lot of thefts at or a lot of larcenies,” he said.

The city of Rosemead, population 54,000, installed 22 of the cameras, resulting in what Fender called “record” crime reduction.

Should the city OK the stationary cameras, which are far cheaper than the mobile system, Fender said he wouldn’t want the mobile camera to go away.

“Those are extremely beneficial,” he said. “That’s an asset that I wouldn't want to lose.”

It was Commissioner Chris Frost who, in the form of a question, summed up how the fixed cameras work.

“If we had one at, say, every canyon entrance … and at each end of the city, and we managed to get every license plate coming in, I could say to you, ‘Hey, lieutenant … (I) don’t have the license number, but it’s a white Toyota pick up and it’s in that neighborhood up there,’ and you could actually go back in that system … start looking through there until you find that white pick up?”

“You literally took two minutes of my presentation and handled it for me,” said Fender.

With data in hand, he told the commission, the Malibu-Lost Hills Station can share it with other stations and even other law enforcement agencies to try to bring offenders to justice.

“A lot of the crime in Malibu is transitory,” he said, the criminals from out of town.

“They don’t live. They’re coming from Ventura County, they're coming from LAPD’s reaa … as far way as the desert,” Fender said.,

“It’s a great tool to try to find out where these people are coming from and catch them when they’re in our area.”

Gibbs noted that a bill pending in the Assembly limiting the time data not related to a specific crime can be stored from 60 days to 24 hours could affect operation of the license plate cameras.

“Privacy people were complaining that even though that 60-day regulation was in effect that there was no auditing that was being done to enforce that 60-day data deletion,” he said.

He also expressed concern over privacy and Malibu personifying Orwell’s all-powerful state.

“We’d be stepping into a new realm or opening a Pandora’s box in terms of opening that Big Brother question when we pay for these things and implement them and have access to that data,” said Gibbs. “I frankly don’t really want to open that, just legally and discussion-wise.”

Gibbs also told Fender he had concerns about the cost.

“Frankly, I just don’t really feel like it’s in the city’s purview to be paying for — no offense — paying for the law enforcement's tool when we’re already paying law enforcement, with the Sheriff's Department, for their services.”

“I feel like if the Sheriff’s Department wants it, the Sheriff’s Department pays for it,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs also had concerns about precisely which violators the city was going after.

“They are license plate readers, but at what point do we become poop patrol?” he said.

“I think I would risk it on the dog poop to solve the murder,” said Fender.

Fender said his presentation was not intended to sell the commission on the new cameras. However, criminals, he said, are getting more technologically sophisticated.

“If we can’t keep up, they're going to pass us by,” he said. “My job is to keep Malibu as safe as I can, keep those Part I crimes down and it's just another tool for me to try keep the community safe.”