License plate reader (LPR) technology has really come on strong during the last five years and the good news is that the technology keeps getting better, the prices have become more reasonable and the benefits of sharing the data have been recognized and acted upon by many agencies around the country.
However, there have been some challenges, and, for the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on an area that should be a priority for agencies using, or contemplating the use of, LPR. This area is so important that ignoring it could jeopardize your entire LPR program or, at the very least, significantly limit its effectiveness.
The biggest potential obstacle for many agencies comes in the form of public perception and media scrutiny. As LPRs have become more common and the databases they feed more effective, the public and press (often in the opposite order) have been asking questions that some agencies are having difficulty answering. And this awkwardness compounds the problem as the public/press points to the apparent lack of transparency as a validation of their concern. Many of the published articles have a significantly negative tone and sometimes they’re outright inflammatory. Forewarned is forearmed, and you need to be ready when the questions start coming.
Just a few months ago, the Wall Street Journal published an expansive front page article entitled “New Tracking Frontier: Your License Plates” and focused primarily on the use of LPR in Southern California. A recent Internet article that got a lot of play focused on LPR efforts in Little Rock, Ark. In questioning the use of LPR, the story pointed out that the town was not a hot bed of terrorism and noted the data was retained indefinitely with no policy regarding use or retention. Just days after the Little Rock story, Arkansas state legislators put forth a bill that would restrict the use of the technology and severely limit the time that the records could be retained. This type of over-reaction can be minimized if you’re prepared and have a relevant, workable policy.
Many articles that I’ve either read or been quoted in have implied that LPR is an out-of-control, unregulated governmental intrusion on the private lives of ordinary citizens. The writers or quoted sources point to the millions of records on file, sometimes dating back two or three years and assert these records serve no legitimate public safety purpose. There is often a strong suggestion of potential abuse by unchecked governmental agents intent on prying into the lives of law-abiding citizens with no history of wrong doing.
Dispelling the Prying Eye
Although some have loudly criticized LPR as an unwarranted tracking of a private person’s everyday movements, LPR systems don’t really work that way.
Despite the efficiency of LPR and the millions of records that reside in many databases, an individual vehicle will only come to the attention of law enforcement in one or both of two situations: a) If the vehicle is on an alert list (e.g. stolen or felony stop) at the time the license plate is initially captured (read). If this is the case, an officer generally takes whatever action is warranted. This is no different than an officer observing a vehicle and recognizing the plate from a hot sheet; b) When a query is made as a result of a criminal investigation and a vehicle or vehicles are identified as meriting follow-up. As an example, this could be the case when a crime victim reports a partial plate and an investigator queries the LPR database looking for vehicles with that plate combination that match the description provided by the victim.
Even with extensive LPR coverage, the LPR records are intermittent captures of encounters with vehicles and don’t come close to the full-time tracking of GPS devices. This is important because the U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a ruling that continually monitoring a vehicle’s movements for a period of 28 days using a GPS tracker requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant. (United States v. Jones, 565 US, 132 S.Ct. 945)
Despite protestations to the contrary, LPR records are not personally identifying information, a legal term that assigns a greater level of scrutiny to data gathering. LPR cameras capture images of a vehicle and its plate, not the person who is operating it. The identity of a driver and his or her relationship to a vehicle is never assured because vehicles are instruments that can be shared and borrowed. Even the name of the vehicle’s registered owner is unknown to law enforcement without a separate query of a secure database that leaves an audit trail. This is significant because it essentially negates the concern that LPR is gathering extensive amounts of personally identifying information.
Although a single person may own a vehicle, this person isn’t identified in standard LPR operation and most LPR images don’t even display identifiable photos of the occupants. This is an area that bears more discussion than I can give it in this limited space. But a great resource is the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) that was published in September, 2009. The electronic version of the document is available without charge at www.IACP.org, keyword LPR.
Debunking the Abuse Allegation
LPR technology is a powerful crime fighter and force multiplier. Not surprisingly, those who are opposed to LPR frequently and loudly proclaim that the technology could be misused. For instance, an officer could query the system to determine, for personal purposes, where a specific vehicle has been going.
In fact, the Wall Street Journal article on LPR cited an example of a Washington, D.C., police lieutenant using a law enforcement database to blackmail the owners of vehicles parked at a gay bar. Although the reference was used to make a point about potential abuse of LPR data, the actual case involved an officer using a vehicle registration database and had absolutely nothing to do with LPR. Further, the case points out that those who misuse databases are held accountable. In the D.C. case, the officer was fired and prosecuted for extortion.
Perhaps more relevant to this discussion, none of the LPR critics have produced a single case of an LPR database being used for nefarious purposes. The reality: Other routinely used LE databases have much more intrusive and private information than an LPR system. For instance, a simple driver’s license check will tell you how much a person weighs, what their natural hair color is, when they were born, where they live and what their driving infractions have been. To suggest that LPR records should not be gathered because the resulting information might be misused is specious.
Understanding the Public Reaction to Fixed Cameras
Although the most commonly deployed LPR technology involves cameras mounted on patrol cars, some areas of the country have successfully used LPR cameras in fixed locations where thousands of cars may pass by in a single day. However, getting a fixed LPR camera system installed can be a real challenge and many well-intentioned efforts have been derailed because of adverse public or political reaction.
There’s a parallel to red light and speed enforcement cameras in terms of public perception. People may not be happy about officers writing tickets for speed or red light violations, but they’ll accept the activity much more readily than an automated system that is perceived as an unfair extension of authority.
Accordingly, LPR cameras mounted on a roving patrol car are viewed by many as a legitimate use of police technology while a 24/7 fixed (and therefore unmanned) LPR installation is thought of as an unwarranted governmental intrusion. Understanding this difference and sensitivity can save you a lot of time and money. If you’re thinking about using fixed LPR, do a little testing of the water before you get surprised.
The Primary Targets of Concern
Criticism of police use of LPR often focuses on how long the records are retained and how many records are kept on file. The issues are directly related, combined with how many systems are contributing to the database. The most frequent question I’ve been asked about LPR is how long records should be kept. Like many things in our business, the easy answer is “it depends,” but this won’t satisfy an investigative reporter or privacy activist.
So, before you get asked the retention question, determine: 1) legal requirements, 2) operational and investigative needs, 3) data storage capabilities and 4) a reasonable balance of the previous areas in light of public sensitivity.
Regarding a legal requirement for retention, some jurisdictions (and states) have a legal requirement to retain electronic records for a specified period. If that’s the case in your area, then this period is the minimum retention for your data. After identifying any legal requirement, examine the reality of your investigative priorities. If you’re a traffic enforcement agency, then the need to retain LPR records may justifiably be shorter than an agency actively pursuing cold case homicides.
When it comes to data storage, there are two factors to consider. First, how much storage are you willing to pay for? Storage is generally cheap but if you have thirty or forty units in the field and a half dozen fixed installations, you’ll be in the millions of records within the first month of operation. This means you have to plan ahead and determine what you need (based on number generated and the retention time) plus what you can afford.
Second, consider your operational efficiency. As records in a database grow, a database can begin to slow down as it searches through more and more records. This is particularly true with partial plate searches, something that investigators depend on.
Finally, consider the public’s sensitivity to LE use of technology. This is subjective and can change in a heartbeat, but use your best judgment based on the totality of circumstances. One good benchmark: what agencies around you are doing. That can put you within an acceptable norm.
Here’s my recommendation on retention. One year is a minimum, two years is preferred and three years is ideal. This is based on dealing with agencies around the country and learning from their experiences and what’s been of investigative benefit to them. Nonetheless, there are agencies (some of them with huge systems) that hold their records indefinitely and point out that many investigations take a while, especially when it comes to terrorism (e.g., some of the same operatives involved in the 1993 WTC bombing were also involved in the deadly attack on 9/11).
At the other extreme, New Hampshire has prohibited LPR use and Maine has limited retention to less than a month. Well-meaning legislators in these states have deprived police of a valuable public safety tool.
If you’ve got LPR, make sure you’re familiar with the issues, have addressed the question of retention and are sensitive to the political and public climate regarding police use of technology within your jurisdiction. If you’re contemplating LPR, do your due diligence and check with agencies that are within your region and state as to what has become the operational norm. Also ask these agencies if they have related policies that you can review and if they might consider sharing LPR data information so that the database can be more effective.