Looking to address potential concerns about the use of license plate reading technology in the community, leaders with the Palm Springs Police Department (PSPD) took their case straight to area residents Monday evening. What they found was an audience that was varying degrees of both curious and concerned.
The 90-minute forum at PSPD’s Training Center, attended by roughly 30 people, featured presentations on the department’s drone use and the amount of military equipment available to the Desert Regional Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT), comprised of officers from the Palm Springs, Cathedral City, and Indio police departments. The bulk of the time, however, was spent on the final topic — license plate reading cameras.
Up for discussion was a looming request by the department to purchase 15 license plate readers that would be permanently mounted at intersections here, including those at the city’s entrances. Funding for the cameras, estimated at $50,000, would come from the department’s technology budget, which was previously approved by the Palm Springs City Council.
The cameras, made by Flock Safety, record not just license plates, but also a vehicle’s color and other features, alerting authorities when vehicles involved in suspected crimes, or carrying suspected criminals, have entered their community. In areas where multiple cameras are mounted, police can track a vehicle’s movements, aiding in the location of possible suspects.
The technology has drawn criticism similar to that surrounding Ring doorbell cameras, with organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union questioning whether the increased use of surveillance technology creates a trade-off between personal privacy and public safety.
While the cameras could face similar questions if their purchase is approved here, they would not be the first being used both in Palm Springs and throughout the Coachella Valley. Several area cities have installed them, as have private neighborhoods and homeowners’ associations. Two similar mobile camera units have been used by the PSPD for more than a decade, and many private businesses have the cameras deployed in their parking lots.
The fact that the cameras are already in use here may have come as news to some of those in attendance Monday evening. But it wasn’t new information for some Palm Desert residents who attended the meeting. They said they have been trying to voice their concerns about the technology to local elected leaders and law enforcement agencies for years.
“This is all very fear-based,” said Barbara Wasserkrug after listening to the presentations by lieutenants William Hutchinson and Gustavo Araiza. “It appears to be relatively severe and part of the militarization of the police.”
“Is the end game to create a police state?” she asked. “It appears like you’re on that path. It’s pretty severe what you’re talking about this evening.”
Both Hutchinson and Araiza took issue with accusations the department was spreading fear, pointing out that much of the weaponry and technology available to their department is used to de-escalate situations. “We don’t go kicking in doors,” said Araiza .
The drone, which has been deployed roughly 150 times since being purchased in the fall of 2022, has helped locate missing hikers and aided police as they monitored large community events, such as Pride. Recently, it was deployed to help alert people living in area washes that major flooding was expected during Tropical Storm Hilary.
“We don’t weaponize the drone,” Hutchinson assured the audience. “We don’t use facial recognition. Both of those are prohibited under state law. …We’re not just cruising around neighborhoods with it like a patrol car would be.”
As for the license plate cameras, whose funding will be discussed during the next City Council meeting on Sept. 26, Hutchinson agreed it would be hard to establish a relationship between their use and a decrease in crime. In the end, he said, that’s not the goal.
“There’s no part of this that says we can lower the crime rate with these cameras,” Hutchinson said. “But it can help us solve crimes faster.
“You can say it’s fear-based, but violent crime does occur in Palm Springs.”
Your voice: Have something to say about the use of license plate reading cameras in Palm Springs? You can write city leaders prior to the Sept. 26 meeting using the form located here. You can also register to speak by following the instructions here.