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Richmond City Hall

Richmond City Council on Tuesday declined to renew a contract with a company that provides license plate reader detection technology as a crime-solving tool, over concerns about whether the collected information will end up in the hands of federal immigration authorities.

Since 2014, RPD has been using Vigilant Solutions’ Automated License Plate Reader hardware and software, a camera surveillance system mounted to street poles, streetlights, highway overpasses or attached to patrol cars that automatically photographs the license plates of vehicles.

The photos are uploaded to the system and are used by law enforcement agencies to, in part, identify vehicles involved in crimes with the aim of identifying and arresting suspects.

Richmond police Chief Allwyn Brown advocated for renewing the city’s contract with Vigilant Solutions for $30,000 over three years, saying the same system is being used by the California Highway Patrol to crack down on crimes along East Bay freeways, including rampant incidents of shootings in recent years. Sharing the same system will help solve and prevent crimes both in cities and on the freeways, Brown said.

But privacy and immigrant advocates along with several Richmond councilmembers expressed concern over the possibility that the data will be shared with immigration authorities for the purposes of tracking down and detaining undocumented residents. Richmond is a sanctuary city, which means the city and its law enforcement agency does not cooperate with ICE, and only shares data with other law enforcement agencies for the sole purpose of solving crimes.

Concerns heightened after it was discovered that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) purchased access to license plate reader databases, including one by Vigilant Solutions, leading to a lawsuit over last year by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Chief Brown attempted to assure council and the public that Vigilant Solutions was not contractually allowed to share any data with immigration authorities.

“There is a network of jurisdictions that we have to identify, but we and they can’t share [the data] beyond them,” Brown said.

Brown added that since 2014, “we haven’t had an issue” regarding data being shared with ICE.

A majority of council, however, was not assured that the data wouldn’t be able to reach immigration authorities.  

“I don’t have any doubt of the usefulness of this tool,” Councilmember Ben Choi said. “I think we need more assurance here.”

Choi referenced growing anxiety over threats of ICE raids under the Trump Administration.

“If we share information to another partner agency, what prevents them from sending the data to ICE and other government agencies?” Councilmember Demnlus Johnson III said.

Councilmember Melvin Willis added he was “never worried about our police department cooperating with ICE. It is other agencies.”

Rather than renewing the contract, the Richmond council voted 5-2 to end the contract and to put out a request for proposal to find another agency that features more safeguards, including systems used in San Francisco and Oakland.