Pros, cons seen in license plate readers
Cutting-edge law enforcement tool, or roving eye keeping check on where you've been?
License plate readers mounted on the back of police cruisers have proved to be extremely adept at spotting the bad guys. But it's the amount and type of information they collect -- on everyone -- that makes some people uneasy.
With lightning speed, the scanner reads plates of cars on both sides of a police cruiser as it goes by. Connected to a computer database, the device alerts the officer driving if it recognizes any of the tag numbers. The reasons for the connection can range from an unpaid registration fee to the car was reported stolen to it is registered to someone wanted for murder.
"It's a very dynamic tool," said Sergeant John Slusarz of the Greenwich Police Department's Traffic Section. "We use them for traffic enforcement, criminal investigations, finding missing and wanted people. You have all these applications in one package -- It's like having an extra set of eyes on patrol."
License plate readers aren't as common in Greenwich as they are in some other places -- the Greenwich police force has only two LPR-equipped cruisers, whereas Stamford has six. But the scanners have the ability to read and record several thousands of license plates in a single day, depending on where they are used.
"There's going to be a lot more plates to read if they're posted on Route 1 than if they're deployed to the backcountry," Slusarz said.
That increases officers' ability to do their job exponentially.
"The LPR reader is used to check all the information of vehicles present in a public space quickly and perfectly accurately," said Lt. Kraig Gray.
A debate is brewing at the state level, however, not over the machines' effectiveness, but how long police departments should be allowed to store data collected by the readers.
American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut staff attorney David McGuire is leading the fight to have some heavy regulations put on the use of LPR technology.
Twice he has gone before the Connecticut House Judiciary Committee trying to get a law passed that would limit the amount of time a police department could keep license plate pictures in its system. The ACLU's proposal is to limit the time to 14 days, unless the information is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.
In an interview, McGuire said he has no problem with the technology, because it is efficient, especially now that registration stickers are no longer put on rear license plates.
The problem, he said, is one of privacy.
With so many plates kept in some systems, he said a map could be generated showing where each vehicle was and when, providing a vivid picture of the travel habits of state drivers who are not suspected of doing anything wrong.
In Greenwich, there is no hard policy for the number of days the police department keeps license plate data until destroying it, but Slusarz estimated the information is dumped after 30 days, if that. The issue, he indicated, isn't privacy, but capacity. Big data takes up memory, he said, and storage, "is at a premium."
"It would be nice to have a giant repository," he said, "but this is a matter of storage space."
In his testimony before the Judiciary Committee, McGuire said, "These ever growing databases can easily be used to reconstruct an individual's movements or to identity the vehicles that visit a particular church, mosque, adult bookstore or motel. This amounts to retroactive surveillance of innocent people without a warrant, probable cause or any form of judicial oversight."
McGuire says it is just a matter of time before every police car rolling off the production line will be equipped with LPR cameras.
"Americans value their privacy. If they go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, you don't want that to become public knowledge," McGuire said. "This is useful technology, but there needs to be sensitive limits that will not handicap the police but will protect people's privacy."
Nate Maloney, vice president of marketing and communications for ELSAG North America, a company that makes LPRs, did not want to talk about the ACLU's proposal specifically, but said dumping the plate pictures every 14 days would reduce the devices' effectiveness.
He recalled a case in Dutchess County in 2007 in which a state trooper with an LPR responded to a fire in the middle of the night. At the scene the trooper found multiple murders following a drug deal gone wrong.
Suspects were eventually arrested but said they were nowhere near the crime scene that night. Six months later the data from the trooper's cruiser was checked and it turned out that a suspect's plate was recorded by the trooper as she was speeding to the fire, Maloney said.
If the data had been wiped out by a 14-day data deadline, the suspect's alibi might never have been challenged, he said.
"While we don't think the data should be kept in perpetuity, a reasonable amount of time -- one to two years -- would be very beneficial," Maloney said. "It is taking a very effective tool out of the hands of law enforcement."
Gray said LPR technology simply updates and modernizes the traditional police tactics of manually recording license plates present at the scene of a crime, making the process significantly faster and more accurate.
He's seconded by Newington Police Chief Richard Mulhall, a member of the Capitol Region Police Chief's Association, a group of 11 police departments that share a centralized LPR server system storing photographs of 3 million to 4 million plates stretching back five years.
Mulhall said he does not see the LPR infringing on anyone's privacy.
"The police have always been able to run registration plates. They are issued by the state and used on public roadways," Mulhall said.
The only difference from the way it used to be done, is that the LPR technology it is a "quantum leap" forward in terms of productivity from a patrolman calling a plate into dispatch, he said.
Assistant Stamford Police Chief James Matheny said the "objectivity" of the technology should put fears of prying to rest, not stoke them.
As the cruiser runs down the street automatically checking every plate it can find, there is no discrimination involved, he said.
"It is much more objective than a person doing it," he said. "You could never say that the LPR was looking for a certain type of person. It is only looking for bad guys, wanted people and missing kids. It only hits on that ... So, it takes the Big Brother question out of it. It is only looking for people that are wanted," he said.
State Rep. Gerald Fox, D-Stamford, the Judiciary Committee Chairman, said he expected more attention to be paid to the ACLU's proposed LPR legislation at the beginning of the session, but other issues such as gun violence took more prominence after Adam Lanza's assault on Sandy Hook Elementary School.
He said the bill was not voted out of committee but he expects it will get another chance in the coming session.
Fox declined to pin down how long the data should be kept until he takes a better look at the issue. While he does not want to tie police departments' hands on the matter, Fox said he is also taking privacy concerns into consideration.
"We need to look at how other states are addressing this as well in an attempt to come up with a resolution that all sides can accept," he said.