Illegal gun seizures across Santa Maria have increased by more than 30% over the past year as police officers use license plate readers and data to crack down on firearm offenses. 

Compliance checks conducted on Dec. 14, 2021, resulted in two firearm-related arrests and uncovered a victim of an unreported shooting.

During the operation, a team of 21 officers and deputies from the Police Department, Sheriff's Office and state Parole Office fanned out across the city, visiting locations where individuals on probation and parole are known to live, according to Santa Maria Police Lt. Terry Flaa. 

Officials made at least 21 compliance-related checks, including three arrests, logs show. 

The three people arrested were not identified, although two were firearms-related arrests, and police allegedly seized a high-capacity magazine and an illegal handgun during the operation. After one search, officers discovered that an individual was a victim of a recent shooting, although the person did not cooperate in providing details to team members, according to Flaa. The shooting is now under investigation. 

Overall, seizures of illegal firearms in the city have increased 31.2% from 77 in 2020 to 101 in 2021 as of Dec. 29, even though the data for the year is not complete, according to Flaa. The number of seizures in 2020 was a decrease from 87 in 2019, Flaa added.

The seizures were made through a series of search warrants and compliance checks conducted at numerous locations and also have resulted in numerous firearms-related arrests over the last 12 months, although an exact number could not be immediately provided, according to Flaa. 

Efforts were aided by technology, such as a license plate reader system that was installed in the city earlier this year.

On April 20, 2021, the Santa Maria City Council voted 4-1 to approve a $240,000 request from the SMPD for the readers, which will ultimately be a one-for-one replacement of the city's 31 crime cameras, according to Chief Marc Schneider. 

Concerns over privacy with license plate readers have been raised, including the sharing of data with other law enforcement agencies, according to Karen Gullo, an analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

Location-based data can be used to reveal intimate details of someone's life that might not necessarily be relevant to an investigation, Gullo added. 

However, Flaa said the license plate readers and a crime analyst hired recently to link data together have helped improve the SMPD Crime Lab's ability to process firearm evidence. Detectives also have been better able to link guns to other crimes where little to no evidence or information was available. 

"Data analytics are used successfully to link pattern crimes, alert officers to trends and aid in directed enforcement activities," Flaa said.