Super Chief

Let’s begin the new year with a question:

Suppose you were a member of the Alameda City Council and needed advice about whether automated license plate readers were an effective tool for fighting crime.  Whom would you turn to:  Alameda Police Chief Nishant Joshi – or Councilman John Knox White?

Surely, if qualifications mean anything, the answer should be Chief Joshi.

Holder of a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and corrections from Cal State – East Bay and a master’s degree in organizational leadership from St. Mary’s College, Chief Joshi spent 22 years and nine months on the Oakland police force.  He became a lieutenant in July 2012 and a captain in July 2017, and was promoted to deputy chief in February 2021, overseeing field operations in East Oakland.

And Mr. Knox White?  Well, he’s never been a cop or worked in law enforcement; he got his college degree in psychology from the University of Colorado, and his day job is as a “planning section programs manager” for the San Francisco Muni.

But to Mr. Knox White (and his flock of followers on social media), his lack of hands‑on experience does not amount to a lack of expertise.  When it comes to policing, he knows better than the police chief simply because . . . he’s John Knox White.  So why shouldn’t his colleagues and constituents take his opinion over the professionals’?

Our readers will remember that, after the Mali Watkins incident in May 2020, Mr. Knox White, joined by Councilwoman Malia Vella, submitted a Council referral requiring that the police department obtain Council’s OK before it implemented any “policing policy changes.”  He followed up with another referral, this time joined by Councilman Jim Oddie, asking Council to cut the police department budget by 42 percent and to direct the City Manager to impose a host of other changes in police practices.

Well, the budget wasn’t cut, and the ordained changes weren’t imposed.  But Mr. Knox White’s campaign to challenge the authority of the police chief hadn’t ended.

Consider what happened at the December 21 meeting at which Chief Joshi sought Council approval for APD to install fixed ALPRs at six locations where vehicles entered and exited the city.

The issue of license plate readers has been kicking around at least since 2014, when Council authorized the police department to buy four “mobile” ALPRs that would be placed in patrol cars.

A few years later, police chief Paul Rolleri proposed to expand the program by installing fixed ALPRs at the six entry‑and‑exit points.  But Council turned him down, with Ms. Vella and Mr. Oddie leading the opposition and Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft falling in line.  (Despite the Chief’s repeated assurances to the contrary, the three raised the fear that APD would hand over the data it collected to I.C.E. and the I.R.S.  We suspect Mr. Knox White would have voiced a similar objection, but he hadn’t yet been elected to office.)  Instead, Council accepted a substitute motion directing staff to draft a Request for Proposals for its review and approval.

There the matter stood until Trish Spencer rejoined Council in December 2020 and sought to revive the ALPR project by asking for a status update from Interim Police Chief Randy Fenn.  Mr. Knox White tried to kill off any renewed interest then and there by stating his “understanding” that a “definitive decision by leadership” had been made “not to move forward with ALPRs,” but City Manager Eric Levitt set him straight.  In fact, Mr. Levitt said in response to Mayor Ashcraft’s question, he did intend to bring the item back to Council.

Thereafter, Chief Joshi, who became police chief in May, picked up the baton.  At the December 21 Council meeting, he proposed, as Chief Rolleri had, that the City supplement the mobile ALPRs by installing fixed ALPRs at the six entry‑and­‑exit points.

Fixed ALPRs are an “investigative tool” that “that helps law enforcement deter, solve and hopefully clear a criminal case,” Chief Joshi told Council.  The cameras automatically take pictures of the license plates – not the occupants – of every vehicle coming into and out of the city.  These snapshots can be compared to lists of stolen cars and vehicles included in Amber Alerts.  Moreover, they can be used to help identify the specific vehicle involved in a crime.

The system he was proposing “isn’t run by a human and simply detects objective data,” the Chief stated.  Access to the data would require documentation of a reason for the search and approval by a supervisor, and an audit trail would be generated.  The data would be deleted after six months.  (The Chief expressed willingness to reduce the retention period to 90 days or fewer.)  And the system would not be used for immigration enforcement, nor would it be connected to any third‑party source.

As a “new police chief,” Chief Joshi said, “one of my initiatives includes reducing our policing footprint by leveraging technology that gives clear direction and focus in our investigative and enforcement actions.”  The proposed system combining mobile and fixed ALPRs represented an “opportunity to use technology that doesn’t include human bias and reduces our policing footprint by focusing on specific vehicles involved in crimes rather than casting a wide net for similar vehicles involved in crimes.”

According to the Chief, many police agencies around the Bay Area and across the country use ALPRs, and all of those he examined “say that the technology is invaluable and serves as a powerful resource. . . .”  And he offered specific examples:

  • “There was a kidnap case in Georgia [where] ALPR helped locate the vehicle used and reunited the mother and child in less than five hours of the kidnapping.
  • Morgan Hill PD and San Ramon PD saw an efficiency increase by at least five times. They said that cases were being solved in less time with ALPR as compared to when they did not have ALPR.
  • Benicia PD recovered 11 firearms during a stop of a vehicle that was identified by ALPR.
  • Fairfield PD reported that they made an arrest of two murder suspects with the use of ALPR.
  • San Mateo had a pretty brutal home invasion incident of an elderly victim and that case initially had no leads but ALPR helped identify the persons responsible.
  • San Marino PD and their city council attribute their 70% reduction in burglaries to ALPR.
  • San Jose PD was able to resolve 10 shooting incidents through the use of mobile ALPR, and they were just approved expand their fixed ALPR system.”

Moreover, Chief Joshi added, Alameda PD had investigated “a few recent incidents” in which fixed ALPRs located in Alameda would have proved useful had they been available.  “Knowing what I know about those cases,” he said, “I’m 100% certain they would have been resolved much sooner if we had fixed ALPR.”

But the Chief took pains not to overstate his case.  He cited a study from Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, which found that case clearances for auto theft and robbery improved after fixed ALPRs were installed – but which cautioned that the reductions “were not statistically significant in multivariate analysis,” since “other factors may have also contributed to higher clearance rates.”  The problem, Chief Joshi explained, was that “solved and cleared crimes aren’t coded with language or data that says the crime was solved by ALPR.”

The Chief may have thought that he was being evenhanded by pointing out this caveat.  And he was.  But he was also opening a door for Mr. Knox White, who made sure that he got to go first after Chief Joshi had finished his presentation.

“Is it fair to say,” Mr. Knox White asked the Chief, using a phrase that witnesses are advised to take as a signal that a mischaracterization is forthcoming, that “we have found no studies to say that [ALPRs] actually have an impact on crime?”  Well, no, the Chief replied.  He referred to the Charlotte‑Mecklenburg study and, again, explained that “there aren’t a lot of studies that specifically look at ALPR” because “there’s no coding that says this case was solved or resolved or cleared because of ALPR.”

But Mr. Knox White knew better.  To him, the problem wasn’t coding.  Instead, there was “a reason that there are no studies that show that [ALPRs] do not deter or change crime.  And the reason is because they don’t.”  Later, he reiterated, “We are over‑promising if we move forward with this program, that somehow putting these cameras in are going to have an impact on the crime outcomes in our city.  And it’s not going to.”

Q.E.D. – or, rather, ipse dixit.  Mr. Knox White seemed to regard an asserted absence of evidence as the same as evidence of absence – and a valid basis for a forecast of failure.

What about the examples cited by the Chief of cases in which ALPRs had contributed to successful results?  Merely “anecdotal stories,” Mr. Knox White maintained.  He then rattled off a series of statistics from – get this – the City of Piedmont purporting to show that crime rates for certain crimes had increased after Piedmont installed fixed ALPRs even as Alameda’s dropped.  Apparently, when Chief Joshi uses examples from other cities, they’re just “anecdotal stories.”  But when Mr. Knox picks an example from another city, it’s hard proof.  Of what, we’re not sure.

And the Chief’s point about ALPRs enabling officers to spend their time more efficiently?  Wrong again, according to Mr. Knox White.  “Rather than using this to leverage the officers we have to do more and better work,” he contended, “we’re actually going to be taking away from the time they are spending on the streets doing the work that we need them to do.”  How could someone who’s never deployed police officers be so sure?  Who knows?

Mr. Knox White then launched into his peroration:

I’m not going to be supporting this because I think that it actually ends up being just security theater.  We’re going to spend $700,000.  We’re going to put things up on the bridge.  We’re going to actually pull away the resources that we have.  And at the end of the day, a year, two years, three years after this, we’re going to have nothing to show for it.  But the companies that we have spent these hundreds of thousands of dollars are going to have pocketed that money and are going to be on to selling us the next technological fix.  Dozens of agencies in this Bay Area and in the country use these things and there is not one study that can show they have impact on crime.

But he wasn’t finished.  Mr. Knox White apparently thought he’d drive the final nail into the coffin by claiming that, of the four mobile ALPRs approved in 2014, “two of them have been in the shop because we didn’t take care of them and we haven’t maintained them and they’re out of commission.  And they were not deemed so important that we needed to prioritize fixing them and getting them back on the street.”

Given an opportunity to respond, Chief Joshi found it necessary to correct the Councilman.  There was nothing wrong with the mobile ALPR units, he reported.  Instead, it was the patrol cars themselves that were “out of commission.”  Moving the ALPRs into other vehicles would “require initiating another contract with this current vendor” – which he didn’t want to do.

Throughout all the distortions and diversions, Chief Joshi sat expressionless.  (We wouldn’t want to play poker with him.)  At least, he could console himself by knowing that his proposal would live to see another day.  Mayor Ashcraft proved to be the swing vote on the request, and she averred that she might see fit eventually to vote to approve the installation of fixed ALPRs – but she had a list of questions she wanted to be answered first.  Staff promised to get her answers and return to Council in mid‑February.

There may be a way to render another contentious hearing unnecessary:  What if Council voted to direct Mr. Levitt to put Mr. Knox White formally in charge of the police department with plenary authority to dictate its policies and practices?  (Chief Joshi could stick around; Mr. Knox White would be given the title “Super Chief.”)

Ms. Vella surely would endorse the idea, since she already defers to Mr. Knox White on policing (among other) issues.  And we’d bet Ms. Spencer and Councilman Tony Daysog would vote for the motion, too, if they thought it would cut into the time Mr. Knox White could spend trying to exert dominion over every item coming before Council.  (Maybe Mayor Ashcraft would vote yes for the same reason.)

A win‑win, wouldn’t you say?


Staff report & presentation: 2021-12-07 staff report re ALPRs; 2021-12-07 Presentation

Charlotte-Mecklenburg study: 2021-12-07 Ex. 3 to staff report – Study

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
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17 Responses to Super Chief

  1. Denise Lai says:

    Given that since March 2020, Oaklanders have discovered Alameda and used it as their sideshow play ground with few obstacles. Chief Rolleri tried repeatedly to get K-racks put out to stop the sideshows but our CM and Public Works refused to collaborate with APD to stop the sideshows. The sideshows went unfettered at The Point and elsewhere (now even in Sweeney Park) until Chief Joshi arrived; while I disagree with his placement of the K-racks (blocking public access to use our public lands), he did impede the sideshows at their main playground.
    What we have now in Alameda: men in vans following women home after having done their shopping at Southshore, jumping out of the van with a gun and facemark and robbing them, then taking off. This happened 2 weeks ago in the West End near my house (fortunately, the neighbors would not have it and chased him; he ended up running down Pacific Avenue with his gun until the driver/van could pick him up again). It sure seems to me that the ALPR would be VERY useful to help solve this crime. Neighbors did see the van type, color, but did not catch the plate. We’re pretty confident that these criminals are from off-island, and wouldn’t that be absolutely snazzy if APD could identify them using ALPR and stop this very dangeous nonsense? And if Alameda became known for catching these criminals, then maybe they’d chose another city.
    I’m curious here: did none of the city council discussion include the crimes in our city and the types that would benefit from ALPRs? Because from where I’m sitting, in my home, watching a guy run down the middle of the street brandishing a handgun—clearly skilled at this, running down the middle of the street evading the home security cameras—the crime types seems to be an important key to this discussion. In the 16 years I’ve lived here, most crimes were family members on each others, and meth heads stealing stuff; we rarely had people from off-island committing violent crimes here. Now we do. Let’s get the ALPRs installed post haste!

  2. Sunrey says:

    I may have heard wrong, but I thought I heard the Mayor say at this meeting–more than once–
    “…if this item comes back again before Council”.
    If others heard the same, what does this possibly mean? Is it possible that this item will not come back before Council ASAP?
    If not for the bad weather and covid, I think reasonable Alamedans should be out in the street
    protesting against inaction by this City Council on this important safety issue.
    Well,, there’s still the Alameda ballot box next November!

  3. Publius says:

    But Mr. Knox White knew better


    If I may make a modest suggestion for your blog in the New Year: Set your F1 key to spit out that phrase, and your F2 key to “His Excellency” to replace His name. These moves will save you countless keystrokes.

  4. Who Polices the Police? says:

    It would not be a New Year on Sullwold’s blog without the usual fireworks specifically directed at JKW. ; )

    I’m in favor of ALPRs. They are an excellent force multiplier, and it seems that some cities were able to install them for far less than $700,000. Los Altos Hills got a free 3-month pilot program for 40 units, and they allow residents to opt out if they had privacy concerns.

    Police absolutely should have civilian oversight, and to mock that idea is a slippery slope towards a police state that is accountable only to itself. Other cities have civilian police commissions. Alameda does not – the city council is it. The police chief is accountable to the city manager, who is accountable to the city council, who are accountable to the people. So the way I see it, JKW is doing his job, and has clearly done his homework.

    JKW produced some graphs about crime in Tiburon and Piedmont, cities that implemented a citywide network of ALPRs, which showed that the crime rate actually went up after implementation. JKW is right, nobody has been able to produce statistical proof that ALPRs actually reduce crime, even if there are lots of anecdotal stories that suggest they do. For $700,000 plus annual cost, we need to know what our ROI will be, because ALPRs absolutely are not the panacea people make it out to be. Police vehicles in Alameda have had LPRs for years, and crime is still going up. If Alameda could get a pilot program like Los Altos Hills did, and a privacy policy that everyone is happy with, that would be a great start.

  5. Publius says:

    Police vehicles in Alameda have had LPRs for years, and crime is still going up.

    An understaffed police force with fewer cars on the streets and zero traffic enforcement is not able to fully implement the cameras on the cars. They don’t work when they aren’t used.

    Same understaffed police force also cannot show a visible street presence the way it used to, back when we lived next to a violence plagued city but had almost zero gun crime on our streets.

    • Who Polices the Police? says:

      That is your assumption. My understanding is that the cars equipped with LPRs – which is not equipped on all cars – are prioritized first. Understaffed police force might or might not have anything to do with ALPRs. As I said, ALPRs have the potential to be a force multiplier. And as JKW hinted at, there might be more effective use of $700,000 than cameras that have no statistically proven ROIs. Could we increase the salaries of new officers to lure them here? Would that be a better use of funding? If you think our need can be met by addressing an understaffed police force, then wouldn’t you want to make sure that $700,000 is wisely spent on something more than hopes and dreams conjured up by the PR department of an ALPR company? Again, I’m for ALPRs, but it’s been frustrating to not see any convincing data that they actually reduce crime. I’m not one for burning the city’s money, like Trish Spencer did with forcing that special election in 2019 or the former city manager’s ridiculous golden parachute.

      • Publius says:

        Deterrents’ efficacy is indeed hard to measure, but that doesn’t mean they have no value. How much is your smoke alarm worth if you’ve never had a fire?

        Can the deterrent need be met by increased staffing? Yes. We should do that, as well as LPR’s. Your hero called for a FORTY TWO PERCENT reduction to an already bare bones force, however. His credibility on any subject relating to crime is very, very thin. He has smugly lectured us that crime is down while shootings have increased exponentially and car thefts outnumber days on the calendar. Neither his “data” nor his “facts” will sway anyone — other than the most blind partisans.

      • Who Polices the Police? says:

        Publius – it seems you misunderstood, and we’re getting off topic, but I’ll respond anyway. That 42 percent is not a reduction of emergency services, but rather how much of those services could be addressed by personnel other than armed police officers. I don’t remember the data now, but I clearly recall about 2/5th of calls that went to police could have been better addressed by some other specialists, such as social workers, mental health workers, family case workers, etc. JKW supports increasing police staffing up to the budgeted level and poaching bonuses to hire more officers. You and I both want more officers on Alameda streets, but nobody wants to be an officer these days – not in Alameda, and not in most places in the country – because the environment and work expectations are so bad for them. We have a national policing shortage, and you can’t blame JKW for that. It would seem to me that narrowing the scope of work for policing, letting other experts take care of special problems such as the Gonzalez tragedy and the Mali Watkins incident, would make for a more enticing work environment for police officers to join up again. JKW’s comment that overall crime was at or near an all-time low was actually backed up by the former Police Chief Rolleri. The city data shows crime has been flat through end of 2020. I personally feel crime has gotten worse, but I have not found data that backs this up. I think this suggests that social media has done a good job of amplifying incidents that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. Perhaps we need to wait for 2021 data to confirm, because the pandemic has definitely drove people to do desperate things.

        Officials say there’s a nationwide police shortage:

        Alameda City Crime Stats:

  6. Common Sense says:

    Not quite that simple. Police chiefs want more law enforcement tools, just as the military wants more weapons. That’s why we have civilian (not law enforcement/military) control.

    I generally don’t like the surveillance state because its growth has coincided with increased invasions of privacy, violation of Constitutional rights, and attempts to destroy political opponents. But, I recognize Alameda is an island, with limited access, and faces rising crime, in a no bail environment, with early release of felons, and few incentives not to steal, given the recalcitrance of progressive prosecutors to actually do their job. So, if license readers actually “intimidate” criminals, and by that I mean discourage them from coming here to commit crimes, then isn’t that better than a mugging, carjacking, armed robbery, police confrontation or a citizen opening fire?

    As far as cost goes, wasn’t this City Council considering spending all $22 Million in federal stimulus money on the bottomless pit of “homelessness?” This would get far more bang for the bucks or a much lower cost.

  7. richard94501 says:

    I agree with Councilmember Knox White in one respect. We should not be over-promising that the license plate readers will lead to a reduction in crime. But it WILL lead to solving more crimes and holding someone accountable. It might also stop a fleeing criminal from continuing a crime spree.
    Why should Alameda be a safe zone for fleeing perpetrators of crime whose license plate was captured on a security camera somewhere else?

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