Category archive

Uncategorized - page 3

Cinemark reopens San Mateo County movie theaters

in Uncategorized by

Cinemark Theatres reopened four movie theaters in San Mateo County today, including locations in Redwood City, San Mateo, Daly City and San Bruno.

The reopening follows the county’s move on Monday to a less-restrictive tier in the state’s COVID-19 reopening plan. The move from the purple, or “widespread” tier, to the “red,” or substantial tier, means some activities can move indoors, with modifications, including restaurants, gyms and movie theaters.

Movie theaters are allowed to open at 25 maximum capacity or up to 100 people, whichever is fewer.

Masks are required, while movie theaters are undergoing more frequent cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch areas.

Burglars strike homes in San Mateo, Belmont

in Uncategorized by

San Mateo police are investigating a rash of home burglaries in their city and Belmont Friday night.

A home in the 4000 block of Wooster Drive and another on the 4000 block of Highview Drive in the west side of the city were targeted at around 9:15 p.m. Friday night, police said.

While alarms and security cameras prompted a swift police response, the suspects, who gained entry to the homes from the back yard, escaped before their arrival, police said.

“We later learned the suspects burglarize additional homes in Belmont during the same time period,” police said.

Anyone with surveillance or any information is encouraged to call San Mateo Police Dispatch at (650) 522-7700. Anonymous tips can be submitted to or by calling (650) 522-7676.

Aging water main pipe breaks near Belmont City Hall

in Uncategorized by

A water main break near Belmont City Hall early Monday caused some flooding to the immediate area and impacted water service to some customers for several hours.

The break occurred under Raltson Avenue at about 3 a.m., causing some flooding in the City Hall parking lot and nearby playground. The Mid-Peninsula Water District arrived on scene to begin repairs within 30 minutes, the city said. Crews reportedly needed to repair an aging broken cast iron water main pipe.

Water service was restored to affected customers as of 1:30 p.m. Monday, the city said.

22-year-old man killed in solo crash on SR-92 at El Camino Real

in Community/Featured/Headline/Uncategorized by
CHP to deploy extra officers to SR1 in goal to reduce motorcycle-related incidents

Authorities are investigating what caused a solo crash that killed a 22-year-old man on State Route 92 at El Camino Real early Saturday.

The CHP responded to the solo vehicle crash involving a 2017 Acura at about 1 a.m. They learned the sedan had left the south road edge of SR-92 eastbound. The vehicle traveled off of a dirt embankment before overturning and colliding into the top of a concrete wall that divides northbound from southbound SR-82, also called El Camino Real, according to the CHP.

Both directions of SR-82 were closed during the investigation and cleanup, with the northbound lanes reopened at about 2:40 a.m. and the southbound lanes reopened just before 4 a.m., the CHP said.

The identity of the victim has been been released pending notification of next of kin, CHP said.

It is not known yet if drugs and/or alcohol were a factor  in the collision. Any witnesses are encouraged to contact Officer H. Clayton at the Redwood City CHP office. (650) 369-6261.

Facing deficits, Redwood City proposes increases to police budget, salaries for top officials

in Community/Featured/Headline/Uncategorized by
Redwood City welcomes first cannabis dispensary

As Redwood City grapples with projected budget deficits due to the COVID-19 pandemic and amid communitywide calls for police reform, the city is proposing pay raises for top officials and an increase to its police budget. Meanwhile, the budget proposed for 2020-2021 reduces overall spending on parks, recreation and community services.

At tonight’s meeting, the Redwood City council is set to review a budget proposal to solve a $10.1 million deficit next fiscal year that increases the police budget by $2.3 million, from about $46.6 million to $48.9 million, while cutting its overall funding of parks, recreation and community services by $520,000, from about $19.5 million to just under $19 million. The budget for police patrols is increased by $1.3 million, from $28.3 million to $29.6 million.

See the full proposed budget here.

Meanwhile, the city council tonight is also set to review a proposal to increase the annual salaries of City Manager Melissa Stevenson Diaz and City Attorney Veronica Ramirez, who make $295,008 and $251,604, respectively. The pay raises were delayed from 2019, the city said. In late March, the proposed pay raises for the top city officials were shelved amid uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and to better enable the public’s ability to chime in on the matter. With that uncertainty ongoing, the proposal is back on the council agenda, but with adjustments. Due to COVID-19, according to city documents, both the city manager and city attorney requested to forgo their 3-percent merit increase from 2019, as granted by an ad hoc committee that reviews their performance annually. Also, they agreed to forgo a planned 1-percent internal equity adjustment. The ad hoc committee recommends instead that both positions receive a 3 percent cost of living adjustment for 2019.

Some in the community have questioned pay raises for top officials in city government at a time when many in the community are suffering amid the shelter-in-place order. Redwood City businesses thriving before the shelter-in-place order are now struggling, as evidenced in projections for sales tax revenues to the city, which are the second largest contributor of revenue to the city budget behind property taxes. Sales tax revenue is forecast to drop by 5 percent next fiscal year compared with 2019-2020, and to decrease by another 1.3 percent in 2021-22 before ticking back up again. However, the city warned that it cannot fully predict how local businesses will rebound from the recession, with COVID-19  social distancing protocols expected as well as probable changes in consumer behavior.

“…Auto sales are among the top 10 sources of sales tax paid to the city and dealerships currently are permitted to repair cars, sell auto supplies, and only sell vehicles online or by phone,” the city said in documents. “Restaurant activity also contributes significantly to the city’s sales tax base, and restaurant sales are expected to plummet due to requirements to provide food only for take-out or delivery.”

Those impacts were partly offset by large retailers deemed essential during the shelter-in-place period, online retailers headquartered in the city and also online retailers complying with new legislation related to the South Dakota vs. Wayfair case, the city said.

Tax revenue from hotels and similar businesses, called transient occupancy tax, is expected to decrease by 31.3 percent compared to the 2019-2020 fiscal year, and the utility users’ tax revenue is projected to decrease by 5.4 percent over the same period.

The unexpected recession also came in the middle of city efforts to deal with significantly rising pension costs. The annual CalPERS payment is projected at $43 million in 10 years, or $12.8 million more than next fiscal year’s payment of $30.2 million.

Redwood City’s proposed budget for next fiscal year includes $292.9 million in revenues and $292.6 million in expenditures, with a general fund of $148.3 million. Police and fire department salaries account for $67.5 million, or 66.8 percent of all salaries, wages and benefits in the general fund, the city said.

The City Council meets tonight at 7 p.m. on Zoom. To view the agenda and to find out how to join the meeting, go here.

Struggling coronavirus victims: small businesses on life support

in Community/Featured/Headline/Uncategorized by

For city leaders and residents alike, Redwood City’s core identity has been wrapped up in being the entertainment capital of the Peninsula, a destination alive with bars, restaurants and theaters. Overnight, the coronavirus has brought back a vampire specter no one imagined could ever return: Downtown “Deadwood City.”

Misery has company, it must be said, and neighboring cities with thriving downtowns a couple of months ago are in exactly the same boat.

For restaurateurs and retailers, for the self-employed in offices and contractors working outdoors, the coronavirus and the response to it have been devastating. Two months into an abrupt shelter-in-place closure, many business owners whose revenue took a nosedive are struggling to pay rent and make payroll and wondering how they’ll survive. Though government and community members are trying to throw these flatlined small businesses a lifeline, the economic undertow is powerful.

Take Ron Brown, 75, for example. He began in the flower business with his dad at the age of six and with his wife owns Redwood City Florist on Woodside Road, next to Crippen & Flynn Funeral Chapel. Bay Area funerals are limited to 10 people or fewer, and this normally large part of the Browns’ revenue has virtually disappeared. Their son, daughter and a grandson are the paid staff.

Sales in March and April were down about $40,000. A $4,000 wedding planned for five days after the shutdown got cancelled. Administrative Assistants’ Day came and went uncelebrated April 22. “We always do Woodside and Sacred Heart (graduations),” Brown says. “They order big arrangements for the stand. All the proms and the spring dances were all cancelled and we do maybe 300 or 400 wristlets over the course of a couple of weeks. … If something doesn’t happen pretty soon,” Brown says, “if we miss Mother’s Day … I don’t know if we’ll be in business in June.”

This story was originally published in the May edition of Climate Magazine. To view the magazine online, click on this link.

Family-owned Plaza Florist & Gifts in San Carlos has been able take orders by phone at home, create the flower arrangements at the store on San Carlos Avenue and then drop them off. They’re mostly small birthday or “thinking of you” bouquets, says florist Jill Naghdchi, not big orders like weddings and graduations that pay the bills. The store had to lay off two employees. In business since 1985, “We’re taking it day by day,” she says.

As government officials look at reopening the economy, many business owners say there needs to be more flexibility for individual businesses who are able to operate safely.

Though he has understanding landlords, J. Vincent is struggling to pay his apartment rent as well as for his Hair Loft space on Broadway, near City Pub in Redwood City. He thinks hairstylists should be classified as “essential” businesses. Furthermore, they are state-licensed and must meet high sanitation standards. “We wash our hands more than the average person,” he says. “We wash heads. We cut hair. We’re not kissing clients. … My salon is only a five-station salon. I have six feet of space (between them).”

He applied for a federal loan, but like many small businesses, got squeezed out when bigger companies got in before the first round of funding ran out. “We’re all in it together,” Vincent says, “but for me, I’m fearful that I might lose my business. I’ve worked so hard to have good credit and that’s going to go down the drain.”

Losing Event Income

Even if other stores start to reopen, until people flock to downtown Redwood City for entertainment and events, things will remain slow at Busy Baby Bottoms/Stuff on the Square, a small specialty store in a kiosk on Courthouse Square. Angela Rogan has been the co-owner with Realtor Greg Garcia for two years.

“The summertime is our biggest revenue and with that it usually sustains the store through the winter months because we do so well (with) summer concerts, the events,” Rogan explains. “The Fourth of July (parade and festival) is a big revenue maker for us. In fact, the Fourth of July will pay for our insurance for the whole year. And all these activities and events have now been cancelled and at this point I’m very worried.”

She has a second job as a waitress but says it will put a strain on the family budget to keep the store afloat until crowds come back. “It’s going to be a vicious, vicious year,” she adds, “because not everybody is going to come out even if they loosen the restrictions.”

In San Carlos, the uncertainty about special events has put the Chamber of Commerce itself in “a bit of a bind,” according to Tom Davids, a former mayor who is now its part-time interim CEO. About 60 percent of chamber income comes from events, including an October art and wine fair.

Not knowing whether the state will allow “people wandering around without a mask” by then makes it difficult for the chamber to plan, Davids says. “We have some question how we’re going to raise the money we need to keep the doors open.”

There Are Winners

In every crisis there are unexpected winners. And owners who get creative and adapt.

Business at Ralph Garcia’s vacuum and sewing machine store on Main Street in Redwood City has “actually been gangbusters,” he says. “We’ve sold more sewing machines in March and April than in the previous six months. Everybody’s dragging out their machines to make masks.” About 1 ½ years ago, he bought a large quantity of fabric and has been able to sell mask-makings too. “I find it hard to believe there’s still a shortage of masks the way they’re cranking them out,” Garcia says.

Peter Borrone and his wife initially shuttered their popular Vesta restaurant on Broadway but were worried about their employees and reopened two weeks later for takeout. They’ve only been able to bring back four of 18 servers, but all the kitchen staff and dishwashers are at work. Chairs and tables have been rearranged to facilitate pick-up by DoorDash-type services and customers, and a few kid-friendly items have been added to the menu.

Not knowing what to expect the first night they reopened, Borrone was at home fixing dinner when a staffer called and said he needed help. “When I drove up there were people six feet apart, but they were down the block,” he says. “They were on that side of the street. They were sitting in their cars. They were everywhere. It was amazing support.”

City and business organizations have jumped in. The Redwood City-San Mateo County Chamber of Commerce initiated a “Feeding Our Local Heroes” campaign to deliver restaurant meals to hospital staff and other essential workers. Funds to buy the lunches and dinners come from community-minded corporate and individual sponsors. By late April, about 1,100 meals had been delivered.

Dani Gasparini, a former mayor, has helped match recipients and restaurants. It’s a way to thank the workers who are keeping essential services going and also keep chefs and other restaurant staff on the payroll. “The winner in it,” she says, “is really the restaurant.”

$1 Million to Start

Local government is trying to help. The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors allocated $1 million for small businesses in the county through the San Mateo Strong Fund. Grants are being administered by the San Mateo County Development Association jointly with the San Mateo County Credit Union.

At a $10,000 maximum per grant, that translates to money for 100 business across 21 jurisdictions, SAMCEDA’s executive director Rosanne Foust told the supervisors. Since the initial outlay, a growing number of cities have been adding to the fund to help their own businesses—$1.3 million and counting. Redwood City added $300,000, Foust says, so on top of the grants made countywide, “we can save at least 30 (Redwood City) businesses if not more.” Applications opened April 27 and the number of businesses applying far exceeded available funds. The small business grant portal has closed and the applications are being reviewed for funding.

“We’re trying to get corporate donors, any residents who want to donate to it, high net-worth individuals, whoever we can get,” adds Foust, who is also a former Redwood City mayor. “If we want to keep these small businesses which really matter to us open, then we’ve all got to be dialing for dollars.”

She and her staff put in long days to gather information for the SAMCEDA website on loans and grants available to businesses, legislation and other vital topics. San Mateo Strong had to be built “from the ground up” in less than three weeks, she adds. “There’s no other mechanism that is out there to really get money to small business quickly.”

Don Burrus, Redwood City’s economic development manager, enlisted librarians to call the city’s 6,600 business license holders to find out what they need and offer information. Burrus had personally handled more than 300 calls and emails from often desperate business owners, especially after funds from the initial bailout legislation had been exhausted.

“I definitely think that it’s going to be very difficult for all businesses, not just Redwood City but every business in the United States to try to recover from a lack of revenue generation certainly for 60 days,” Burrus says. “It’s going to be tough for everyone.”

Mayor Diane Howard made phone calls to the management companies at Sequoia Station and the downtown cinema asking them to cut their tenants some slack. All businesses may not survive, but she hopes the city can provide encouragement and resources “that they’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Real Recovery

Ultimately, though, real recovery hinges on getting back to work, and pressure to reopen is increasing, especially as other states greenlight their businesses.

Foust participates in a thrice-weekly call with city, county staff and business leaders, and she has been advocating for residential construction to be allowed to continue. The county-led group, Foust adds, is starting to focus on what can be opened and when. “They want to do this but they want to do it in the safest way possible.”

Howard sympathizes with residents who got caught up in the shutdown while remodeling and are living with an unfinished bathroom or a wall that wasn’t closed up. Others may have moved out during the construction and are paying double rent. That said, she adds, “I’m all for trying to get back, but I’m going to follow the guidelines of the county and the governor. I feel that we really need to be very careful as we go forward so we don’t have a relapse.”

License plate scanners feed a terror database

in Featured/Headline/Uncategorized by

Impending explosion in technology heightens tension about privacy.

Drive a major street or park on a public road in San Mateo County and your car’s location has been recorded and loaded into a national database where it may be retained for years in case law enforcement needs it, perhaps for a drug case, criminal investigation, or anti-terror intelligence.

Or network data may be misused, as cases show that it has. If kept long enough it may represent surveillance, or help push policy in that direction, as anti-terror efforts have done in many countries, Iran, Russia, India, China, North Korea, Turkey among them.

The capability locally is managed by an entity of the San Mateo County Sheriff, who is the regional agent for the international war on terror. This anti-terror capability is poised for an explosive local expansion, fueled by a commercial surveillance industry that already faces accusations that it tramples personal privacy in the service of social “disruption.”

As the result, commercial surveillance technology is dragging law enforcement into new realms where the guarantee of privacy rests upon individual morals and ethics of capitalistic entrepreneurs.

Meanwhile, data streams 24 hours a day to a system whose unblinking eyes are Automated License Plate Readers, or ALPRs, both fixed and roving on police patrol vehicles. They feed a database handled by, among others, Palantir, the software company that reputedly helped kill Osama bin Laden.

ALPR input can persist for years in a system where private businesses are paid to gather, store and even resell it.

Vigilant Solutions, the county’s vendor and the company two-thirds of law enforcement agencies in the state use for ALPR systems, boasts of having 7 billion ALPR records in its inventory — 21 for every human being; 27,000 for every registered vehicle in the country. And Vigilant is only one of many, all of whom can feed the national intelligence network.

This story was originally published in the May edition of Climate Magazine. To view the magazine online, click on this link.

A Right to Privacy

The greater the precision with which law enforcement can track a car means increased likelihood it can identify its owner, as well as where that car has been and will be in the future. Regardless of a person’s attitude about national security, technically that is a violation of the Constitutional right to privacy.

In this county that tracking ability is about to become very precise.

The 9/11 attack on America spawned a system of anti-terror “Fusion Centers” established by the Patriot Act of October 2001, before Facebook, years before the first iPhone and many years before the first phone app. Through them local law enforcement was elevated to equal partner with federal agencies such as the FBI, CIA and Department of Homeland Security, in the hope that data sharing would “connect the dots” like those overlooked in the lead-up to 9/11.

These agencies do not disclose operations and are not inclined to report successes, let alone failures. Consequently, certain activities of local law enforcement were closed to scrutiny. The Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC, pronounced NIK-rik), is the Fusion Center for 11 Northern California counties and is operated through the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department.

Fusion Centers are a significant component of the federal government’s National Intelligence Strategy. In this county NCRIC is the data collection point for every police department that uses ALPRs. Cities deploy about 15 cameras; the sheriff has 56, some fixed at high traffic areas such as the intersection of Holly Street and Industrial Boulevard, where nine are attached to light poles. Some are mounted on patrol cars, hoovering up the plates of every vehicle they pass.

Fusion Centers were grafted onto an information- and data-sharing system Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs established 20 years before, which is why in addition to its anti-terror role NCRIC also is Northern California’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area enforcement agency.

Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Sena is NCRIC’s director and an eminence in national law enforcement. Involved with Fusion Centers for the better part of two decades, he has emerged as a major national figure. He is a member of the U.S. Attorney General’s Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative Executive Committee, chair of its Criminal Intelligence Coordinating Council and President of the National Association of Fusion Centers.

He scoffs at the idea that Fusion Centers could evolve into Orwellian surveillance organs. The reason is not policy. It’s logistics.

“There are 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country,” Sena said, “and there’s no way people would agree to share data at that level. It’s hard enough getting people to share criminal data. I don’t see us going down that route.”

Crime Prevention Focus

Furthermore, gathering data “is not what we do,” he added. Stock-in-trade of the 80 staff on its $4 million-plus payroll, he said, is data analysis in response to requests by authorized law enforcement agencies, developing “pointers,” software intelligence, that helps solve or prevent crimes without violating citizens’ civil rights.

Other particulars can be gleaned from the public record because the conduit for Homeland Security money that finances NCRIC is the Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative, a California public agency bound by the state’s open meeting law.

NCRIC has 10 TLOOPS, officers in its Terrorism Liaison Officer Outreach Program who sift through crime-stopper tips submitted as Suspicious Activity Reports. Anonymous citizens can offer up anything they choose as a Suspicious Activity Report, license plate numbers, names, descriptions, photographs, documents and narrative.

TLOOPS followed up on 185 of 962 Suspicious Activity Reports in 2018, the last year NCRIC disclosed the total number, and distributed information to more than 12,000 users.

The center provided threat assessments to special events such as conventions, concerts and major sports. In 2018 it trained 1,400 representatives from allied agencies in homeland security, officer safety and narcotics enforcement. It collaborated with the FBI, Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on policy guidance. It worked with social media — “Facebook, Google, Twitter etc.” — on “threat-to-life” reporting.

Sena emphasizes NCRIC public service: Amber Alerts, Silver Alerts, tracking of sexual predators, gang interdiction, property theft, assaults, murders and many other crimes that make up the gamut of day-to-day law enforcement are its everyday fare.

In fact, local law enforcement is the doorway to this world. Fusion Centers and city cops, chiefs and sheriffs are in a symbiotic relationship and ALPRs are critical to it. The locals purchase ALPR systems, typically with Homeland Security funds. Locals value them not simply because they’re thwarting the next terrorist attack on the nation. They like them because they supposedly help do the obvious: find stolen cars.

No one really knows how effective they are. National vehicle thefts average about 3 to 4 percent of crimes. Nationally, four of five stolen cars are never recovered and nine out of 10 vehicle thieves are never arrested.

No national statistic shows whether ALPR data played a role in recoveries or arrests, so any information is anecdotal. An unidentified Arizona agency cited in promotional literature said ALPRs boosted recoveries “two or three times.”

The cost in terms of how many data bits are collected about supposedly innocent citizens for each recovery, however, is massive.

A State Audit

California State Auditor Elaine Howle examined ALPR methods and policies of 391 California law enforcement agencies in 2018, performing detailed analyses on four — Marin, Sacramento, Fresno and Los Angeles. Her report showed that the Sacramento County Sheriff, responsible for a population of 636,000, collects 1.7 million ALPR images a week, 88 million a year and had 3,337 vehicles stolen. That works out to 26,000 plates collected for every stolen vehicle, or 88 pictures for every car and truck in the county.

By comparison, San Mateo County’s population is 100,000 larger than Sacramento’s but it lost a fifth as many vehicles, 674. If the county’s more than 70 ALPRs collect data at anywhere near Sacramento’s rate, 130,000 plates will be scanned per recovered vehicle.

ALPRs do more for cops than find thieves. Cops are safer because of them. They know in an instant if a traffic stop involves a vehicle stolen or suspect in a crime. They have more time to work. They don’t have to log plates, write them up and type on a computer.

But that part of the system is old technology that works outside the Fusion Center. Using the 30-year-old California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, police tag a plate with a crime or incident report and send it to the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information System, which adds it to a national “hot list.” If they have to make a stop, cops interrogate CJIS before getting out of the car, then verify.

But it’s only a plate. It’s not a person. It’s not identification. Who cares? To believe that anonymous data can’t identify a person is to believe the Easter Bunny wears slippers to bed. All it takes is tracking over time to find out where the driver lives, works and travels. That is what criminal analysts do.

Having developed an ID, analysts attach phone numbers, addresses, mortgages, criminal history, family and associates, work record, passport information and on and on. Casting into the future they can predict where the individual likely will be, what they will be doing, at what time.

But sometimes not even analytics are needed to connect a plate with a person. Mike Katz-Lacabe became a privacy activist after discovering that San Leandro police photographed his car 150 times over two years with mobile ALPR, once capturing a scene of himself and two daughters, in his driveway, getting out of his car.

“If you look at ALPR data over a period of time,” he said, “you can very easily discern where a person lives, where they work, the people they associate with and — perhaps more important to law enforcement and which has in fact been used by law enforcement — whether they attend a mosque, whether they went to a demonstration, whether they went to a marijuana medical dispensary, whether they went to an abortion clinic.

“In California that might not be a big issue, but in some areas of the South, that might be a very big issue. The amount you can tell about a person’s life is potentially incredibly invasive.”

Keeping Records

Analysis doesn’t have to be done right away; it can happen years in the future because ALPR images persist. NCRIC is connected to a Regional Information Sharing System that keeps more than 44 million records forever if necessary.

State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) took on the data retention issue in 2015, provoking a battle with police chiefs and sheriffs. He introduced Senate Bill 34 to limit retention of ALPR data to 60 days, but the cop lobby got the language changed to “only as long as necessary” with recommended deletion after 4 1/2 years.

He’s still angry. Researching for SB 34, a private investigator tracked the senator’s wife using ALPR data. “Boom, there she was, at the gym,” Hill said.

He is of the opinion ALPRs are surveillance. “They drive around picking up license plates at a thousand plates a minute or a second or as fast as they can accumulate them. In most cases it’s a private company that then sells that data to law enforcement. “If it’s not a police state, it will be shortly,” Hill said.

Vendors like Vigilant Solutions are analytics companies, too. They sell data. While Vigilant may delete ALPR data after as much as six years, its default, it sells analytics based on that data “as long as it has commercial value,” according to its privacy policy.

Law enforcement argues that collecting data on public roads is not surveillance because it invades no one’s privacy, a precept that stems from the legal principal that no person visible in a public place has a reasonable expectation of privacy.

A legal challenge to ALPRs has not made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court adjudicated a related issue in 2018: collecting GPS intelligence data from cell phone towers. “A person,” the decision said, “does not surrender all (privacy) protections by venturing into the public sphere…With access to (cell‑site location information), the Government can now travel back in time to retrace a person’s whereabouts.” The court also expressed concern that information was being collected on all persons, not only “persons who might happen to come under investigation.”

Not yet addressed is whether the gigantic government apparatus that has formed to combat terror should continue to expand and add new eyes, ears, drones, cell phone tracking or technologies yet to be invented or conceived, in the name of law enforcement.

Public sentiment seems to be on the side of law enforcement. The desire for “more safety” does not necessarily suggest “less privacy” in the public mind.

Privacy and Civil Rights

Fusion Center privacy policies are extensive. Along with anti-terror training it teaches civil rights and privacy. Sena, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s captain, said privacy and civil rights violations can justify firing. Agencies breaking the rules can be reprimanded or, in the extreme, removed. Such discipline has never occurred at NCRIC.

On the other side, the desire to generate as much data as quickly and cheaply as possible is a powerful lure. And some of the new technologies are very attractive.

Crime tips and video are free to police from the NextDoor app, subject to a privacy policy that says members can only share information if they specifically say they want to do it and the local police agency says it wants to have it.

The ubiquitous “strange man at my front door” reports are staples of NextDoor, where some may overuse its “Forward to Police” button. But the company has rolled out a software app for police. Now cops can rebroadcast video back to the community and get intelligence on their smart phones, a sort of neighborhood watch on steroids.

Change also is moving into license plate readers, and quickly. Another phone app lets an officer scan a plate for an instant hot list hit.

On the camera side, Garrett Langley of Atlanta, Ga. is blowing up the industry with his company, called Flock Safety. The 35-year-old entrepreneur already is on his second start-up, having sold to Cox Enterprises for $200 million in 2014.

Langley, who had been a victim of property crime, built a better ALPR to not only digitize plates but take high-resolution photographs of the car and its environment, record the make and color, when and where it was last seen, and ship the data to the customer. Flock Safety then links it to the FBI’s CJIS and pings a hot list hit. It’s virtually an instant analyst.

Data Deleted

According to its policy, Flock Safety protects privacy because there is no expectation of privacy on public roads, the buyer owns the footage and it is used only to help police solve crime. Lastly, the data, which is stored by Amazon Web Services, deletes every 30 days. If no crime, no data ever existed, Langley said.

Atherton Chief of Police Steve McCulley said that could be a deal-breaker. Atherton wants the data for a year, which it interprets as state law.

What motivates Langley is his personal moral code.

“We try to ask those ethical questions,” he said. “None of us came from law enforcement. I’m just a regular guy that happens to have a degree in electrical engineering, and I ask…what’s the kind of world that I want to build and the kind of world I want to encourage and support? I figure that, if I’m comfortable with it, then I would expect that many other people will be comfortable with it.”

What he sells in reality is a system costing $2,000 per camera that does much more than legacy ALPR systems that cost millions. A legacy system doesn’t include maintenance, updates or data storage, which can add hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Flock does it for free.

“I wanted to build something better,” Langley said. “Under current pricing it was really a luxury item and not a commodity and we wanted to democratize everyone’s ability to stay safe.”

Flock buyers have been homeowners’ associations and businesses wanting to monitor private roads and parking lots. The cameras pipe a feed to an administrator, who could be anyone, including a member of a homeowners’ association, some of whom set up security monitors in their garages. Flock counsels against doing it, but nothing prevents administrators from watching who went where, when. Of course they did, even boasting about it in testimonials Flock posted to its website.

“Oh yeah, we know about Flock,” Sena said. “They’ve been active across the country for the last nine months.” How to accommodate Flock is only partly in his universe. He must adapt. As the locals go, so goes he.

Adding Cameras

The Town of Atherton, population 6,900, is the first in the county to be ready to buy Flock and up to 25 cameras. That would be a big increase in its present inventory of three. Two more of the 13 law enforcement agencies in the county probably will follow. Daly City, population 100,000, and Foster City, population 30,500, are talking with Atherton. The 70 cameras now out there may soon increase by scores.

Should Atherton buy the full Flock its data gathering capability will increase by a factor of five, meaning five times more precise information about what plate was where, when and where it’s likely to be. Multiplied across San Mateo County the vast new pool of ALPR data will translate to much more precise knowledge about a car’s, and potentially an owner’s, whereabouts in the past and in the future.

Langley talked about that phenomenon when he expressed dismay about California, where “ALPRs are poorly implemented and poorly distributed. You have some of the most affluent communities in the Bay Area and they have less cameras than we have in our neighborhoods.”

He has the right to be derisive. His hometown has the honor of being the 10th most surveilled city in the world, with 7,800 public cameras in service, or more than 15 for every 1,000 citizens, not including private cameras in places like liquor stores and shopping malls. Atlanta is even ahead of Moscow, at only 12 cameras per 1,000. Only one other Western city, London, at number six with 627,000 cameras, outranks Atlanta.

All the rest are in China, which expects to have 626 million cameras in operation this year and is on the path toward a goal of two public cameras for every person in the country.

Number one is Chongqing, with 2.5 million cameras for 15 million people, referenced here because Chongqing resident Sarah Wang exquisitely summed up surveillance ambivalence: “Even if it makes me feel a bit disgusted, that feeling still can’t overcome my strong wish to find out who stole my phone in public,” she said.

It is hard to be optimistic about privacy considering how poor the record has been found to be on both sides of the operation, the ALPR system and the Fusion Center system.

Granting that police and sheriff’s departments try their best to be their legal best, it is difficult to be as good as one thinks one ought to be.

Three Keys

Confidence in the system depends on three things: the legitimacy of the people who access data, whether audit systems are in place to catch anyone misusing it, and whether data is destroyed when no longer of value to an investigation.

Regarding legitimacy, the state auditor turned up the appalling instance of the 18,000-member Los Angeles Police Department, where access to the ALPR system was automatically installed on every computer in the department, regardless of the job of the user. Contrary to state law, three of the audited police departments were sharing ALPR data with Immigration and Customs Enforcement — and didn’t know it.

In San Mateo County 800 of 1,665 law enforcement employees have access to ALPR data. Statewide the number is in the tens of thousands. NCRIC has more than 20,000 authorized users.

Without identifying individuals, the auditor found fired cops who still had user access weeks after being kicked off the job. Since the system is web-based — remember the app that lets police scan a plate with a phone? — these former officers could check plates from anywhere.

The auditor cited an Associated Press two-year investigation that found 325 officers who were fired and another 250 who were reprimanded or disciplined for misuse of ALPR data. The California Highway Patrol investigated 11 cases of database abuse in 2018, three involving officers improperly looking up information on license plates without a need to know.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. Most departments have policies to audit user access but they never perform audits, therefore making it impossible to identify misuse.

Though most ALPR data is accessed within 30 days for criminal cases, most keep it for a year, some for five.

Sen. Hill may get his wish yet. The auditor recommended that state law be changed to specify a maximum retention period, and State Sen. Scott Wiener, who requested the audit, is preparing another bill.

“There are really no rules around (the data),” Weiner said. “…These agencies just do whatever they want with the data. They can retain it as long as they want. They can give it out to other agencies around the country. There’re no constraints.”

And they do give it out.

Sharing Data

The system’s value is in tracking plates wherever they are. Criminals with cars do travel, consequently 84 percent of California agencies share their ALPR data. If ultimately it ends up being shared with Marin, Sacramento or Fresno, which appears to be a virtual certainty, it will be shared with at least 2,655 agencies in 49 states, among them the Honolulu Police Department. And those agencies share.

It’s a concern for Redwood City, then, that a police sergeant in Ohio pled guilty to using ALPR data to stalk his ex-girlfriend, her mother, all her male friends and all of the college students she taught.

Fusion Centers fared little better the one time the U.S. Senate cracked them open in 2009, when Sens. Tom Coburn’s and Carl Levin’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs probed them. Among embarrassing disclosures were the facts that the Department of Homeland Security did not know how much it spent on Fusion Centers and actually thought it had more centers than it did. Four were “not operational” and a fifth, in Wyoming, was counted, but its one agent was no longer in the state.

Less amusing was this conclusion: “DHS did not adequately train personnel it sent out to perform the extremely sensitive task of reporting information about U.S. persons – a job fraught with the possibility of running afoul of Privacy Act protections of individuals’ rights to associate, worship, speak, and protest without being spied on by their own government.”

Presumably things have improved since 2010.

Capt. Sena’s NCRIC should be a model, in view of his national profile and influence.

“We don’t know what the technology of tomorrow is going to look like” he said. “Technology evolves very quickly. But we have to adapt policies of how we use data responsibly so that people understand the rules of the road. That’s why we started looking into especially how newer technologies are coming out and how we effectively use those and first and foremost protect the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and all of the privacy, civil rights and civil liberties considerations that we’ve built over the last 60 to 70 years in America.”

Speaking of rules of the road, while the Fusion Center and law enforcement find themselves continually in this dance between ALPRs and privacy protection, the big-volume data collectors don’t.

The toll authority monitoring 138 million vehicles a year on the seven San Francisco Bay bridges only scans the plates of cash lanes and toll violators, with 154 cameras to keep track.

The California Highway Patrol has no fixed units, but its 121 mobile ALPRs log 4 million miles a year, scanning as they go.

Neither shares data, not with law enforcement, not with NCRIC, not with any of the six other Fusion Centers in the state. They’re bound by the Streets and Highways Code and the Vehicle Code.

They respect personal privacy.

Strummin’ Along, Singin’ a Song: The ukulele takes over the Peninsula – and the world

in Community/Featured/Headline/Uncategorized by

Tiny Tim never saw this coming.

For those unfamiliar with late-1960s television, Tiny Tim was the stage name of the late actor (no one would say, “singer”) Herbert Khaury. He achieved notoriety on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” by accompanying himself on the ukulele while warbling “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” “On the Good Ship Lollipop” and, most infamously, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” all in an ear-bending falsetto.

The ukulele itself was half of the joke. What a silly little instrument. And there was homely, long-haired Tiny Tim, all six-feet-one of him, clutching it to his chest, strumming away as viewers across the country lunged at their TVs to change channels.

Now, the ukulele is hip – and enthusiasm has been growing for more than a decade. According to market and consumer research firm Statista, sales of ukuleles in the U.S. soared to 1.77 million in 2018, up from 501,000 in 2009. Locally, staff at Gelb Music in Redwood City and Clock Tower Music in San Carlos estimate they collectively sell around 900 ukuleles a year.

The 700 PUGS

On the Internet, YouTube brims with performances ranging from those of virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro to kids’ laptop-recorded versions of their favorite pop tunes. The Peninsula Ukulele Group, known as the PUGs, counts more than 700 members, and an event in Santa Cruz called “Burning Uke” (in a turn on the “Burning Man” festival in Nevada) sells out each September.

What’s going on?

Brian Kimmel, who with his wife Susan owns Clock Tower Music, and Mike Craig of Gelb Music both say the ukulele is the perfect starter for someone who wants to try playing music.

“The instrument itself is small and portable, and it doesn’t require a lot of hand strength to produce the chords,” Kimmel observes. “And the chords are so simplified that you can often play a three-chord song with just one or two fingers.”

Adds Craig, “It’s not as intimidating (as a guitar). We see with a lot of customers who come in, they look at a guitar and a ukulele, and for whatever reason, the ukulele looks like it’s not as challenging or the mountain is not as high.”

While Brian Kimmel was commenting for this article, Clock Tower co-owner Susan Kimmel sold a ukulele to a musical beginner, Michele DuBarry, of Belmont. Now in her 60s, DuBarry says she always wanted to get involved in music again after briefly studying the viola at age eight. “I play air guitar like anything,” she laughs, and was pleased that after one lesson with Clock Tower teacher Mike Ehlers, she could play “Clementine,” which requires just two chords. (“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” takes just one, which can be played with a single finger.)

This story was originally published in the May edition of Climate Magazine. To view the magazine online, click on this link.

Beyond instant gratification, low prices offer another attraction. Whereas a beginner’s electric guitar and a small amplifier cost around $200, a rock-bottom, plastic ukulele retails for just under $40 in the Kimmels’ shop. Serviceable wooden models start at around $50. At the other end of the scale, premium ukes crafted from exotic woods such as Hawaiian koa can bring up to $5,000.

Social Time

Then there’s the social aspect. Ukulele players like to get together. Amelia Lin of the PUGs says monthly meetups at the Belmont and Woodside libraries draw an average of 40 to 60 musicians. Each gathering starts with a lesson for beginners, and then the group branches into folk songs, classical music, oldies and even contemporary pop hits by artists such as Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber. (Information about the PUGs is available at The organization should not be confused with another Peninsula Ukulele Group, in New Zealand.)

Ukulele-playing spans generations; Ehlers says his students range literally from seven to 70 years old. For players above 55 years of age, the Avenidas Ukulele Band at the Avenidas Village senior-citizen center in Palo Alto focuses on older adults. Founded by Redwood City residents Edward and P.A. Moore, the Avenidas group holds twice-monthly jam sessions that typically attract around 20 participants.

Another source of the ukulele’s continuing popularity, says Edward Moore, is that the instrument “has crept into the mainstream of media.”

In a current television commercial for Hawaii’s Kona Brewing Company, actors David Bell and Blake “Brutus” LaBenz pose as two Hawaiian “bruddahs” who ask why each day features just one “happy hour,” while LaBenz strums a ukulele. Meanwhile, pop-music hits by singers such as Jason Mraz (“I’m Yours”), Paul McCartney (“Ram On”) and Taylor Swift (“Fearless”) have all included the ukulele. The late former Beatle George Harrison was a big ukulele fan, and Shimabukuro’s ukulele cover of Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” has generated nearly 1.5 million views on YouTube.

The Internet, says Gelb Music guitar and ukulele teacher Chris Stone, has propelled the wave for many of his students.

“YouTube is huge,” Stone says. “Not only can you see artists from all over the world very easily, but you also see people in their rooms recording themselves, doing their own versions of their favorite songs. It’s endearing and it’s inspirational to see someone like you – not some star up on a stage – sitting and just strumming something.”

When it comes to stars, however, no ukulele player is more widely respected than Jake Shimabukuro. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, the 43-year-old Shimabukuro is, in Craig’s words, “the Van Halen of the ukulele.” Shimabukuro combines rock, jazz and other musical genres, pushing the ukulele’s melodic, harmonic and rhythmic extremes and achieving a unique sound that’s an entire universe away from “Aloha ‘Oe.”

A Childlike Sound

Even with the complexity of his playing, Shimabukuro believes it’s the “childlike” character of the ukulele that contributes considerably to its popularity. The instrument’s lowest note is middle C; consequently, it plays in a fairly high range like that of a child’s voice.

“I tell people that sometimes I feel like the tone of the ukulele or the sound or the frequency range of the ukulele is very similar to a child laughing, or children laughing and playing on the playground,” Shimabukuro says. “When I pick up the ukulele and play it, it makes me feel good. I feel like my day gets better when I hear the ukulele or when I get to play it. I feel more positive. I feel like I have more energy.”

All this comes from a simple, four-stringed instrument that descended from the Portuguese braguinha, which, according to the richly illustrated book, “The Ukulele: A Visual History,” is still popular on the island of Madeira. It was a collection of 419 immigrants from Portuguese-held Madeira, in fact, who introduced the instrument to Hawaii in 1879. Jim Beloff, the book’s author, credits three craftsmen from Madeira – Augusto Dias, Manuel Nunes and José do Espirito Santo – with developing the modern ukulele.

How the ukulele got its name appears to be a matter of folklore. “Ukulele” in Hawaiian means “jumping flea.” Beloff says one version of the story holds that Edward Purvis, a British army officer who was appointed to the royal court of Hawaii’s King David Kalakaua, was nicknamed “Ukelele,” in part because of his relatively small size next to that of the Hawaiians. Purvis was an exceptional braguinha player, and the name may have hopped from the man to the instrument. Another telling has it that “jumping flea” refers to a ukulele player’s fingers as they leap from string to string.

However it donated its name, the “jumping flea” bit Beloff big-time. He left his job as associate publisher of music-industry publication Billboard Magazine and devoted his professional life to writing for and about the ukulele. His ukulele method books and song collections have sold more than a million copies. He has performed his ukulele compositions, including a concerto called, “Uke Can’t be Serious,” with the Michigan Philharmonic and other ensembles.

Shimabukuro says the ukulele’s reputation for frivolity helps when he plays before audiences.

“One of the things that I usually say at the end of my concerts, I tell people that one of the best things about being a touring ukulele player is that audiences all over the world have such low expectations,” Shimabukuro says. “And I think that’s another charming characteristic of the ukulele – that you don’t take it so seriously. That’s one of the things that I love about the instrument. It’s not intimidating. It doesn’t push people away. It embraces people, and that’s something I love.”

County program helps homeowners add second unit

in Community/Featured/Headline/Uncategorized by

Want to add a unit to your property? A San Mateo County program is offering 100 hours of free feasibility and project management support to eligible homeowners.

The program, Bright in Your Own Backyard, is launching in the pilot communities of East Palo Alto, Redwood City, City of Pacifica, and unincorporated areas of San Mateo County. Applications from all eligible homeowners are being accepted through 5 p.m. on June 1.

Bright in Your Own Backyard is a collaboration involving Hello Housing, philanthropy, major employers, local government, and homeowners to build more housing in the San Mateo County community. Launched with approval by the County Board of Supervisors last year, Hello Housing provides homeowners with no-cost support in the design, estimating, permitting and project management involved with building a second unit.

For eligibility and application details, visit


Samaritan House meets its virtual gala fundraising goal

in Community/Featured/Headline/Uncategorized by
Samaritan House meets its virtual gala fundraising goal

The community came through Thursday for an organization that continues to come through for them.

The Samaritan House, which has had to amplify its services during the COVID-19 crisis to meet growing demand from local residents in need, met its fundraising goal of $280,000 to support its Fund A Need program at its Main Event fundraising gala.

While many nonprofits have had to cancel fundraising events during the shelter-in-place order, the Samaritan House opted to go virtual to raise critical funds. Their call was answered.

Carole Middelton, a presenting sponsor of the gala, started the night off with an opening donation of $25,000, followed by a matching donations by Gilliad Sciences and Sutter Health.  The Bohannon Foundation then came through with the night’s largest donation of the night, $100,000, helping Samaritan House reach their goal.

David Bohannon said all have been tested in these challenging times, but added “no one has had to endure more than those serviced by Samaritan House.”

“The Bohannon Family has been engaged with the San Mateo community for more than 80 years,” Bohannon added. “Our roots, our homes and our business center around this place. As longtime supporters of their amazing work caring for those in need, we are honored to be able to assist the Samaritan House in meeting the challenges of this time.”

Diane Dwyer, former KTVU and NBC Bay Area news anchor, emceed the Samaritan House gala while Franco Finn, local hype man of the Golden State Warriors, served as auctioneer. Auctioned items included a long weekend getaway in Palm Springs, a congressional experience with Jackie Speier, and a vacation in paradise in Kihei, Maui. Each item went for almost $5,000.

Samaritan House has battling poverty in San Mateo County for over 45 years. The nonprofit organization provides food, shelter, housing, healthcare, personalized case management and much more to more than 14,000 San Mateo County residents in need, including families, seniors, veterans, homeless adults and individuals living with a disability.

Photo: Franco Finn, local hype man of the Golden State Warriors

Go to Top