San Francisco to install 400 new automated license plate readers to combat retail theft

San Francisco's police department is set to begin installing 400 automated license plate readers to combat retail theft, among other crimes.
(Getty Images)

San Francisco Mayor London Breed signed an ordinance on Thursday that allows the city’s police department to begin installing 400 automated license plate readers to combat retail theft, among other crimes.

The plate readers, which the city said will cover more than 100 intersections, were funded by a portion of $17.3 million in grant funding the city received from the state’s Organized Retail Theft Grant Program in September, according to a news release.

“We are making progress disrupting crimes and we are sending a message that San Francisco is not tolerating criminal activity of any kind,” Breed said in the news release. “While we are continuing to build back our police force, it’s the smart thing to do to incorporate technology that supports the hard work our officers do every day to take care of our city and arrest those who think they can break the law in San Francisco. These license plate readers can play a critical role in disrupting retail theft, car break-ins, sideshows, and other criminal activity.”

The announcement follows a rash of brazen store lootings that have popped up in videos on social media in recent months, a trend that has overshadowed a decline in retail theft. According to the Council on Criminal Justice, retail theft in San Francisco dropped 35% during the first half of 2023 compared with the same period the previous year.


From the $17.3 million total, $15.3 million of the funding will go to the police department for installing the license plate readers, as well as the personnel, equipment and crime analysis necessary to operate them. The remaining $2 million goes to the district attorney’s office.

While San Francisco Police Department already has approval to use automated license plate readers, installing readers required a change in the city’s policy on implementing new technologies, or applying already-in-use tech in new ways. A local law passed in 2019 prohibits any changes to the approved policy without additional approval from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

All city departments must seek new approval even if changes to the usage of certain technologies are only technical in nature. In this case, the police department needed approval to change what kind of video files are used with the readers and what kind of vendor can service them, the news release said.

To ensure the cameras are installed as quickly as possible, Breed has directed her staff and departments to “cut through red tape and any unnecessary delays,” the news release said. This includes working directly with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, both of which have poles that can be used to mount the cameras.

Keely Quinlan

Written by Keely Quinlan

Keely Quinlan reports on privacy and digital government for StateScoop. She was an investigative news reporter with Clarksville Now in Tennessee, where she resides, and her coverage included local crimes, courts, public education and public health. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Stereogum and other outlets. She earned her bachelor’s in journalism and master’s in social and cultural analysis from New York University.

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