Los Gatos Weekly Times
Cameras placed at dangerous intersection in San Jose
Goal: Reduce traffic deaths
It's been just over a year since a driver hit Felipa Pineda's daughter, Vanessa Arce, at the intersection of Monterey Road and Curtner Avenue and sped off into the night. Like the majority of fatal hit-and-runs in San Jose, the case is still unsolved as police rely on grainy footage from a gas station's surveillance camera that reveals little detail of the culprit.
But this week the intersection — one of the deadliest vehicle crossings in the city — saw the installation of the city's first fixed license plate cameras, and it comes as San Jose is on pace to shatter traffic death records.
Pineda, who has been pushing for more street safety at Monterey and Curtner, now has some hope that future parents won't be left scouring blurry videos of deadly collisions and posting flyers on light poles.
“My baby girl is still gone, and they still have not caught the individual,” said Pineda. “Unfortunately, we're not going to solve past crimes now. But in the future, I pray that the cameras do.”
The four cameras — known as automated license plate readers — are part of a yearlong pilot program that police say will help them solve hit-and-runs and other crimes in the city. But the mass surveillance technology has sparked concerns from privacy advocates over how the data spanning thousands of daily drivers will be stored and shared.
The pilot program will send license plate information and time stamps into a database where the material is retained for a year in compliance with California code. For the time being, information gathered from the cameras will not be used to enforce traffic violations such as speeding but “may potentially be used for those purposes in the future,” said Sgt. Christian Camarillo, a San Jose police spokesperson.
The city has contracted with Flock Safety, a startup that has faced scrutiny from the American Civil Liberties Union, which contends the company is building “an entirely new level of surveillance to American communities.”
San Jose's City Council, led by Councilmember Maya Esparza, approved these cameras in September as community members pushed the city to stem the rash of traffic deaths.
“These issues are life and death” said Esparza, whose District 7 includes the Monterey and Curtner intersection. “We want
everybody to know that if you drive drunk and hit somebody and leave them to die in the streets, we're going to use these cameras to come and find you.”
In 2021 San Jose recorded 60 roadway deaths, matching a 25-year peak that the city also experienced in 2015 and 2019. Now with 27 fatalities this year — the majority of them pedestrians — the city is on track to blow past previous traffic death records. This has led to calls for more traffic cops, and Mayor Sam Liccardo's budget includes $6 million for street safety improvements.
While the surveillance technology is already affixed to some San Jose police vehicles and used across the Bay Area's toll bridges, this will be San Jose's first stationary license plate camera. Last week, BART also approved an up to $2.4 million contract for license plate readers in its parking lots after years of wrangling with privacy advocates.
Dr. Roxana Marachi, a professor at San Jose State University who is on the city's Digital Privacy Advisory Taskforce, said the group had “critical questions” ignored during the rollout of San Jose's cameras.
“It seemed to be a rushed decision,” Marachi said during a March meeting of the city's Public Safety, Finance & Strategic Support Committee. “There have been a number of critical questions raised. There has not been enough public engagement on this issue.”
The local chapter of the ACLU also opposes the cameras, saying they will “violate privacy, facilitate dangerous police stops, and risk exposing our immigrant community members to harm.”
The ACLU said that since the pilot is already moving forward, the city should adopt strict data use policies that limit the sharing of information with non-city agencies or databases that could be accessed by federal immigration authorities. The civil liberties organization pointed to a Colorado case where automatic license plate reader software misidentified a vehicle as stolen leading to an unsuspecting family being detained at gunpoint.
Overall research into ALPR technology's ability to deter crime and catch culprits is mixed. One study of Vallejo's police department found that fixed ALPR cameras falsely identified a suspicious license plate 37% of the time but said overall stolen vehicle apprehension more than doubled due to the technology.
San Jose is hoping that with the help of cameras, the city can end the spate of cold cases that have long plagued hit-and-runs. But at the moment, the cameras show no sign of slowing down drivers on Monterey Road.
“I'm going the speed limit and people are honking at me and just flying,” said Pineda, who lives down the street from where her daughter was killed. “They're in a hurry.”