LA turns into spy state, but community can change that

A neighbourhood group in Los Angeles has installed automatic license plate readers at more than a dozen intersections to catch criminals.

In Melrose, last summer surveillance drones were spotted flying near the city’s historic gay/LGBT club West Hollywood, and last month a predator was convicted of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a 5-year-old girl. Now a $2 million (£1.5 million) project to install license plate readers at 110 intersections has been publicly unveiled.

SEE ALSO: Can drones help prevent crimes?

The project, funded by private donations, will transform the streets of Los Angeles’ second largest community from what once was something of a half-forgotten bedroom community into an epicentre of crime investigation and enforcement. The Melrose Improvement Association has also invested roughly $300,000 (£210,000) into bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

Inside the complex of parking lots, some of the few remaining multi-unit apartment buildings, common spaces and shady alleys, the licence plate reader is just one of a pair of radar posts that have been set up, though the scanning data isn’t yet processed.

Dave Shapiro, executive director of the Melrose Improvement Association, says the campaign is worth millions in public and private investment.

“There is a shift, a revolution going on in our society,” Shapiro says. “If you are a resident of the community, we see you all the time. And you come to know us by name because we’re nameless. And we know who are you, what’s your name, and where do you come from.”

Up to 4,000 motorist per day will pass by the license plate readers, but the devices can also spot thousands more license plates of cars inside the project’s perimeter.

Roads in the city of Los Angeles are already crisscrossed by some of the largest cameras in the US (a Reuters investigation found they cover just three per cent of US streets). But for most people in Melrose, the parking lots outside their apartments have long provided a dark spot of privacy.

Malcolm Smith, an activist in the community, says many residents are still worried about their privacy. But the project is a chance to change those feelings.

“We know we’re being monitored. That’s the whole thing. But I know that they are representing my community and will represent us with an objective eye, so that we can get what we want in the long run,” he says.

Supporters say the project is essentially an all-hands-on-deck approach to the murders and sexual assaults that hit Melrose hard. Sixteen people were murdered in the area between 2008 and 2013. At least two of the shooting victims in that time were shot on Melrose Drive, which sits behind the High School of Design and the John Adams Middle School, one of the more notorious crime hotbeds in the area.

Melrose Investment Group, a private equity company, was the primary contributor to the road construction and CCTV. But the project will also employ private firms that will tag cars, and police on the beat to collaborate with the city for patrols.

That structure means that the cameras will potentially record thousands of photos and cost millions more.

But Keren Levy of Malibu Reform Society, a faith-based organisation, says this is a long-term public investment that’s just what Melrose needs. She believes that full-time neighbourhood rangers could be hired to monitor the cameras and deter anyone from damaging the area.

“This will encourage people who aren’t otherwise going to want to do the right thing,” Levy says. “I like to say Melrose is the leading city of solutions, and this is the solution that we need.”

Joel Gronet, a retired Los Angeles police detective, is a volunteer with the Melrose Improvement Association. He thinks the region’s criminals will find other, cheaper methods to commit their crimes. But, he says, they shouldn’t lose sight of the long-term benefits that will come from this new project.

“Right now, they are all hiding in the shadows,” he says. “And the technology that we’re installing will shine the light of day into all those places.”

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