After determining the city’s current use of license plate readers installed last year was a success, the City of San Juan Capistrano approved additional license plate readers and safety cameras to be installed in public parks, facilities and traffic signals around town.
In a 4-1 vote with Mayor Howard Hart against, the city approved the installation of an additional 10 license plate readers and 20 safety cameras during the Oct. 3 City Council meeting.
During the 2022-23 Fiscal Year, San Juan Capistrano purchased 10 automated license plate readers that were installed at key entrances and exits to the city. The license plate readers are solar powered and capture “unique vehicle information” such as the license plate, color and make and model of the vehicle.
During Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Chief of Police Services Capt. Justin Montano explained that the license plate readers have already proven to be a valuable asset to policing.
“We’ve seen many, many success stories with (the existing license plate readers), but for brevity I just want to speak to a couple of them,” Montano said.
In March, the Flock license plate cameras helped to aid in the identification of two suspects that were seen driving into a 24 Hour Fitness parking lot, breaking into a car and stealing $1,000 worth of items from the vehicle.
“(Investigators) did a Flock search … and that resulted in identifying the suspects vehicle,” Montano said. “From that, investigators were able to ID who they were, file the case and ultimately, the District Attorney filed multiple felony charges against them.”
The Flock cameras came in handy again in June, when deputies were alerted to a stolen vehicle driving through town which they located in the Target parking lot, Montano said. Deputies took two suspects into custody and were able to recover over $1,000 in stolen merchandise from that Target, Montano said.
“Again, many more instances like this but I just wanted to cover a couple for you,” Montano said.
The additional 10 license plate readers are slated to be installed along Stonehill Drive and Camino Capistrano:
- Two cameras at northbound Camino Capistrano at Stone Hill Drive
- Two cameras at southbound Camino Capistrano at Stone Hill Drive
- One camera at northbound Camino Capistrano at Saddleback Church
- One camera at southbound Camino Capistrano at Saddleback Church
- Two cameras at northbound Camino Capistrano at I-5 Freeway Off Ramp
- Two cameras at southbound Camino Capistrano at San Juan Creek Road
The 10 existing license plate readers cost the city $28,000 annually for license fees. The city will incur a $113,500 one-time installation fee and annual license fee this year for the new license plate readers and a one-time fee of $80,000 for installation for the security cameras according to the staff report.
Neighboring cities in South Orange County such as San Clemente, Dana Point and Laguna Niguel already use cameras to aid in policing, Montano said.
Montano added that he believed the installation of security cameras at parks and facilities in San Juan Capistrano could help deter and solve crimes within the city.
“Criminals are less likely to commit a crime if they know cameras are in our city,” Montano said. “Cameras can also help deputies and investigators solve crimes by providing that footage of the crime scene and also footage of the suspect, and again we’ve seen multiple cases of that.”
The security cameras would be able to provide live video footage, can pan, tilt and zoom and capture footage from about 300 feet away from where it’s located to assist law enforcement with investigations.
The cameras are set to be installed in public parks, facilities and traffic signals around town:
- Two cameras at San Juan Capistrano Sports Park
- One camera at Historic Town Center Park
- Two cameras at Northwest Open Space Community Park – “Putuidem Village”
- Two cameras at Los Rios Park
- Two cameras at the Train Depot
- Two cameras at Cook Park La Novia
- Three cameras at Descanso Park and the Police Services Building
- One camera at the traffic signal at La Zanja and Camino Capistrano
- One camera at the traffic signal at Del Obispo and Camino Capistrano
- One camera at the traffic signal at Ortega Highway and Interstate 5 Freeway
- One camera at the traffic signal at Junipero Serra and Camino Capistrano
- One camera at the traffic signal at Ortega Highway and Rancho Viejo Road
- One camera at the traffic signal at Rancho Viejo Road and Junipero Serra
There will be signage notifying residents and visitors that the area is under surveillance, staff noted, which Montano noted would ideally act as a crime deterrent.
Video footage collected by the Flock cameras will only be accessible by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department as part of ongoing investigations, Assistant City Manager Matisse Reischl explained.
Flock retains video footage from security cameras for 30 days and license plate data for 1 year.
Answering Councilmemebr John Taylor’s question about facial recognition, Montano noted that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department does not use or plan to use facial recognition technology.
Hart cited privacy concerns as his reason for voting against the installation of security cameras and license plate readers.
“I appreciate that people will always choose safety over liberty, it seems like,” Hart said. “As Councilmember (Troy) Bourne has so eloquently pointed out, there’s a constant tension between the two.”
“What we’re doing is taking a big step towards eroding people’s privacy and people’s liberty when we move towards this as a means of enhancing security,” Hart continued. “We can justify it but we can’t deny it.”
Mayor Pro Tem Sergio Farias noted that if people wanted to protect their privacy, they should start with their phones.
“It’s amazing how much information your phones, our phones, get from us even when you’re not directly inputting it,” Farias said. “It’s amazing how much of that privacy is eroded more by our own choosing.”
“I think what we’re talking about here is cameras, public safety and that is something that I’m supportive of to protect the streets of San Juan Capistrano and our facilities and our law enforcement,” Farais continued.
Bourne noted that the decision is a slippery slope, asking Montano what’s to stop OCSD from returning in the future to request more and more cameras.
“It’s always going to be one step safer, one step more expensive, one step more invasive,” Bourne said.
Montano noted that if he did come back in the future to request more cameras, he’d bring data to back up the request.
“We’re not the first ones doing this, all of my other chief counterparts – almost all of them – have them,” Montano said. “They use them.”
Adding 20 cameras, Montano added, will give the city some data on the camera’s effectiveness.
“I’ll be honest with you guys, I’m very sensitive of people thinking that it’s big brother and we want to surveil everybody, that’s not the case,” Montano said. “We don’t have somebody in an office just looking at surveillance cameras. We don’t. This is a reactive approach right now for my investigators and my deputies.”
Councilmember John Campbell noted that he was leaning towards Bourne’s perspective that the more cameras the city installs, “the more egregious the sort of the lack of our freedom is.”
“I’m not comfortable having big government looking down my back either but I look at the safety issues that are involved, I look at the overall benefits to our community and … I’m very comfortable at this level in having cameras available to law enforcement,” Campbell said.
“I will be very interested in that one-year report that Councilmember Taylor discussed to understand how effective they are,” Campbell continued.