Council Recap: No Deal on License Plate Readers

Decisions on surveillance, Statesman PUD, and parkland dedication fees all postponed

Council Recap: No Deal on License Plate Readers

City Council decided on Sept. 1 to once again postpone a vote on allowing the Austin Police Department to reinstate use of its automated license plate reader program. The department already owns 20 ALPR cameras and previously contracted with Vigilant Solutions to manage the software side – primarily the database of license plate images captured by ALPR cameras, which officers query if they suspect a vehicle is connected to a criminal investigation. APD describes the technology as a "force multiplier" to help expedite criminal investigations amid its staffing shortage, but privacy advocates describe it as enabling mass state surveillance. The latter position won the day in 2020, as the Vigilant contract was expiring and justice advocates were looking for places to cut the APD budget. (The dollars, but not the actual programs, were restored to APD the following year.)

A coalition of justice and privacy advocates has pressured Council to vote against reinstating the program. One concern is the harm that could befall someone erroneously linked to a crime due to misuse of the technology. In May of 2020 APD officers pulled a woman over after their license plate readers indicated the car was stolen, pointed guns at her, and then learned the license plate match was the result of incorrect data entry, according to a complaint filed with the Office of Police Oversight. Her frustration, per the OPO complaint, was summarized: "If a minor clerical error puts citizens at risk of being shot by police officers, that's problematic." (The officers involved in the incident were not disciplined.) APD found no violation of department policy. "The ALPR return is only as accurate as the available data," an APD spokesperson explained

Beyond cases where ALPR mistakes may put lives at risk, advocates point to the sweeping location tracking that ALPR cameras enable. The city's database of plate information will be accessible to APD and, by request, any of the dozens of other law enforcers that partner in data sharing with APD through its notorious Austin Regional Intelligence Center. It's part of a network of state/federal "fusion centers" across the country that was hacked three years ago in a celebrated bit of activist espionage called BlueLeaks, illustrating the risk such big, juicy data sets face. Millions of drivers in the United Kingdom two years ago saw their travel data captured by license plate readers and then leaked by hackers.

“If a minor clerical error puts citizens at risk of being shot by police officers, that’s problematic.” – Complaint filed with the Office of Police Oversight

The risk decreases if the license plate image data isn't retained for long, which is an issue under debate in Austin. A resolution by Council Member Mackenzie Kelly specifies a retention period of 30 days, which APD Chief Joseph Chacon supports. An APD spokesperson said ALPRs have helped in investigations of violent crimes but could not say exactly how many investigations. But CM Chito Vela, a criminal defense and immigration lawyer by trade, proposed an amendment reducing the retention period to three minutes – just long enough to run against the hot lists APD has to look for matches and then be deleted.

Even that is concerning for advocates, as Alicia Torres with Grassroots Leadership explained. When Grassroots learned that ARIC was sharing data with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, it asked APD what information ICE provided to show the "terrorism or criminal nexus," which is required to justify the request. "The biggest issue for us is that there's so little oversight of ICE and APD has willingly handed over information to them," Torres said. "If ICE knows someone they're looking for is in Austin, they can just say they're pursuing reentry charges and under Senate Bill 4 [which requires local law enforcement cooperate with ICE investigations], APD would have to comply." The APD spokesperson explained that ICE must provide a case number, criminal nexus, and the specific criminal code under federal law that the agency is investigating.

Advocates also worry about how the Texas Legislature could weaponize surveillance technologies like ALPRs in the future. Under current law, APD can but is not required to share ALPR data, automatically or via request, with other law enforcement agencies. But state legislators could pass a new law prohibiting cities from restricting access to such information. The ALPR vote will be back on the upcoming agenda for the meeting this coming Thursday, Sept. 15.

Council also voted unanimously to adopt a new meet-and-confer agreement between the city of Austin and the Austin EMS Association. The new contract will provide raises to emergency medical services employees ranging from 4% to 11%, including boosting starting pay for medics to $22 per hour and starting pay for the higher-rank paramedic position to $30 per hour.

The department can also now hire directly into the paramedic position, a victory for the city because the paramedic position currently has the most vacancies of all positions at EMS. Being able to hire qualified applicants from other agencies or fields should help fill those vacancies more quickly. But it's not what the union wanted – they would prefer a higher base wage for EMTs, the entry-level EMS position, to attract more recruits to the department who could be trained up in-house before being promoted to the paramedic position. The contract was approved for just one year, as opposed to the usual four-year term, so the city and AEMSA leadership will return to the bargaining table next year to work out a longer-term contract.

“The biggest issue for us is that there’s so little oversight of ICE and APD has willingly handed over information to them.” – Grassroots Leadership’s Alicia Torres

Two notable items on the Sept. 1 agenda were once again postponed. First, approval of updated parkland dedication fees, which require developers to pay the city a set amount based on the size of their developments. The city can then pull from that funding pool to pay for publicly accessible green space. Also postponed was a second vote on the 305 S. Congress rezoning case, commonly referred to as the Statesman planned unit development (PUD).

Builders argue that the various fees the city requires are already exorbitant and pose a barrier to more affordable development. A report commissioned by the Austin Board of Realtors and the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin (HBAGA) and conducted by the Texas Real Estate Research Center at Texas A&M University found this to be true. Some on Council want to hold the parkland fee steady for one year to further study the problem. Others on the dais feel the fee should be increased so that development of parkland in the city does not fall behind residential and commercial development.

Discussion on the Statesman PUD has focused on how much affordable housing the development should include – and if it should be located on-site or if fees should be collected instead to build affordable housing elsewhere in the city on less expensive land – and what the proposed waterfront park along Lady Bird Lake should look like. Both items were postponed to the Sept. 15 meeting. Next week will bring another 100-plus-item agenda.

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City Council, Statesman PUD, Austin Police Department, Grassroots Leadership, Austin EMS, Austin EMS Association, Office of Police Oversight, automated license plate readers, ALPR, Joseph Chacon, ARIC, AUstin Regional Intelligence Center, BlueLeaks, Chito Vela, Mackenzie Kelly

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