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After 35 years in public education as a university administrator and a high school English teacher, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalists awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Carlsbad Leaders Use Alternative Facts to Bring Big Brother to the City

Fifty-one stationary cameras, in 14 locations, together with six mobile devices added to the ones already installed on two police cars, will soon capture the license plate numbers of all cars passing through the Carlsbad. They’ll be submitted to a national database that tracks stolen vehicles and those involved in crimes.

At its March 14 meeting, on a 4 to 1 vote, the Carlsbad city Council approved the $802,000 plan to conduct surveillance of residents and non-residents alike.

The justification for placing everyone under suspicion until they're cleared in cyberspace was driven by a misleading police report on the city’s crime rate. Only newly-elected Council member Cori Schumacher challenged the numbers and the threat to privacy rights.

Schumacher asked Capt. Mickey Williams to describe the scope of images the cameras will capture. He said the focus would be on license plate numbers, but would also include the make and model of the car. When pressed, he conceded drivers’ faces might be caught as well.

Williams said a two-year crime rate increase, together with a Police Department study that found three fourths of those arrested were non-Carlsbad residents were the primary reasons to spend nearly $1 million on the license plate reader technology.

Only after being questioned by Schumacher did Williams provide the numbers to back up hisclaim of a rise in crime. He compared the number of crimes reported in calendar years 2015 and 2016. In calendar year 2015 he pointed to an overall increase of 19 percent in total crimes. In 2016 there was a four percent increase.

But a more accurate picture can be found by tracking the number of crimes over the last 24 months, from March 2015 through February 2017. During that period the number of crimes declined by six percent.

Pressed once again by Schumacher, Williams agreed the number of crimes reported in calendar year 2014 was among the lowest on record. That statistical outlier exaggerates the growth in crime in a single year. My numbers come from the same source Williams cited, ARJIS, the Automated Regional Justice Information System.

The mayor, who has already filed with the city his Matt Hall for Mayor 2018 Committee, carrying forward the $50,000 campaign war chest remaining from his 2014 election, coached Williams to agree with him that the alleged rise in crime was caused by California’s early release felons residing in and around Carlsbad.

Mayor Hall: “Any information on early release individuals in or about this area?”

Williams: “I can’t give you a number, but anecdotally officers say there’s been an increase in the city. But the actual number is relatively low.”

Hall: “You also said that most criminals are from outside the city. How many early release prisoners are in San Diego County?”

Williams: “I can’t say. The number is constantly changing.”

Hall: “But it is significant?”

Williams “Yes, and there are theories it’s affected the crime rate.”

Hall: “There is a direct correlation.”

Williams: “Yes.”

Hall’s questions, and Williams’s answers, suggest neither has read the latest study of California’s prison release program, “Mass reduction of California prison population didn’t cause rise in crime, two studies find,” (Washington Post, Tom Jackman, May 18, 2016) “Criminology professors Jody Sundt, Emily J. Salisbury and Mark G. Harmon, found that an astounding 17 percent reduction in the size of the California prison population, had no effect on aggregate rates of violent or property crime.”

The mayor also fails to distinguish between correlation and causation. There’s a direct correlation, for example, between the beating of drums and the reappearance of the sun after a total eclipse.
Hall has no evidence to support his claim that ex-cons living in or around the city have caused a rise in crime. He’s just beating his drum of preconceived notions.

To his credit, Council member Mark Packard asked Williams, “Do you have data on how these cameras have solved crimes?”

Williams replied, “We don’t have that data, what we do know from our discussions with agencies that have these is that they’re able to intercept criminals before crimes have occurred.”

Packard: “Do we have data on what percent that happens? In meetings with the community they’d want to know what percent improvement there might be?”

Williams: “No, we don’t have that information.”

Packard got no answers to his questions, but voted for the costly program anyway, explaining that a one-time investment would be cheaper than employing more permanent police officers. “My concern,” he added, “is that five new officers would cost a million dollars a year!”

Council member Keith Blackburn asked Williams if citizens could request information from the license plate readers. Williams replied that the Freedom of Information Act does not allow that now, since the data is considered, “law enforcement investigative files,” but that the California Supreme Court is currently considering a case to address that question.

Blackburn, a retired police officer, was the most enthusiastic supporter of the plan. Putting aside privacy issues and cost, he called it, “a great deal if it solves one crime.”

But it appears Anaheim, California may have gotten a better deal. At its March 22, 2016 meeting the city Council authorized a purchase order to Vigilant Solutions, the same company that will store Carlsbad’s LPR records, in the amount of $69,994.80. That’s $7,000 per camera, compared to Carlsbad’s $14,000 apiece for 57 units.

The Council’s rubber stamp approval of the million-dollar plan, the final action item of a five-hour meeting, with only one newly-elected Council member raising questions about a cost benefit analysis and potential for success, with only a small number of residents who survived the length of the meeting to raise privacy issues, smacks of the same way of doing business when billionaire developer Rick Caruso came to town a couple of years ago with his plan to save the Strawberry Fields by destroying the tranquil beauty of the city’s Aqua Hedionda Lagoon.

It also suggests how important next year's city Council election will be.