Since purchasing a license plate reader, the Harlem Department of Public Safety has seen a dramatic shift in driver behavior. But at least one national organization isn’t pleased with the technology leading to this behavioral change.
The American Civil Liberties Union is concerned the technology might cost motorists something a little more valuable than money: their privacy.
In a July 2013 report, You Are Being Tracked, the ACLU warns that the equipment opens the door for potential abuse.
“More and more cameras, longer retention periods, and widespread sharing allow law enforcement agents to assemble the individual puzzle pieces of where we have been over time into a single, high-resolution image of our lives,” the report said. “The knowledge that one is subject to constant monitoring can chill the exercise of our cherished rights to free speech and association.”
Richmond County sheriff’s Lt. Ramone Lamkin defended the use of license plate readers by pointing out that officers already can do everything a reader can do, just slower.
“Officers do the same thing now,” he said. “The machine is just doing it for you. That’s all. It just runs the tags automatically. It’s not putting that information out anywhere. It’s going to our secured database.”
Readers come in several forms, but local law enforcement agencies tend to use car-mounted models.
Setups are usually adjusted based on the types of roads patrolled. The Hephzibah Police Department is seeking a two-camera system because it patrols mostly two-lane streets, for instance. The Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, which tested the equipment extensively last year, fielded a four-camera unit.
The Harlem Department of Public Safety first began testing a three-camera setup mounted to the back of a patrol car in February, Chief Gary Jones said, and was able to pay for the $20,000 system primarily through the revenue generated by traffic citations. There was about a 35 percent increase in court cases as a result of the first 90 days with the technology.
The average ticket issued during that period was about $790, with most of the infractions involving uninsured drivers and violators driving with suspended registration. Occasionally, Harlem public safety officers found fugitives or people with active arrests warrants.
“We’ve begun to notice that more people have become compliant – at least our local folks are – because they know we have it,” Jones said. “That’s what we were going after, anyways: voluntary compliance. Instead of getting eight, 10 or 12 hits on violators, we might get one a day.”
The technology has the ability to read several thousand tags in real time, far outpacing the average officer on patrol, which is why Hephzibah Police Chief Dwayne Flowers is pushing hard to obtain a reader permanently.
“They make the roads safer,” he said. “It’s just a another tool to help us be proactive in policing. Anything we can do to make the criminal element uncomfortable here, that’s what we want to do.”
Criminals might not be the only ones who are uncomfortable, the ACLU contends. In its 2013 report, the ACLU maintained that license plate readers collect information on innocent motorist more often than violators.
According to statistics compiled by Maryland’s state data fusion center, from January through May 2012, plate readers had more than 29 million reads. About 0.2 percent of those reads were hits, mostly involving suspended or revoked registrations.
Some agencies, such as the Ohio State Highway Patrol, have policies to delete all “nonhit” readings immediately. Others have no set retention period.
Jones said the unit purchased by his department doesn’t hold that information. Instead, it runs data against the Georgia Crime Information Center to alert officers of a match only when one is found.
“It does not retain any of the information, nor does it take any photographs of the driver or any of the occupants,” he said. “It’s instantaneous, and you act upon it at that very moment. The only time that it gives an alert or shows anything is when it’s an invalid type of vehicle with an infraction of some sort.”
The ACLU puts forth several potential scenarios in its report, some involving a disgruntled officer using the device to track the locations of rivals or ex-lovers.
A corrupt law enforcement officer wouldn’t need advance equipment to do such things, said Jones, the Harlem chief.
“There’s obviously room for abuse even just running a tag,” he said. “An officer can certainly run a tag for personal benefit if that’s what they wanted to do on a female, for example. But that’s in violation of GCIC rules and regulations, as well as departmental. You’ve got those guidelines you still have to follow any way that you look at it.”