The Gwinnett County Police Department Traffic Unit will be using new license plate reader (LPR) equipment which automatically runs every license plate that travels by the police car. The LPR device that costs about $20,000 per police car checks for expired, suspended tags, no valid insurance, sex offenders and wanted persons in a national data base. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
HOW THEY WORK
• Cameras, mounted on patrol cars or fixed objects, take photos of passing objects
• The system identifies license plates within photos, converting their numbers to machine-readable text
• Those numbers are automatically checked against desired lists — databases of suspended licenses or expired tags, wanted persons lists or sex offender registries, for example
• If a match appears, an instant alert is provided to the system operator
• Photos (including tag number and date, time and location) are stored for a length of time determined by individual law enforcement agencies
LAWRENCEVILLE — Gwinnett’s police and sheriff’s departments have them. So do the county’s six municipal police departments. The Georgia State Patrol uses them here, too.
Ask the American Civil Liberties Union and it’s a big brother problem, another sign that the government is (successfully) trying to track our every move. Ask law enforcement, and they’re a useful tool in cracking cases and keeping unsafe drivers off the streets.
The conversation about license plate readers — automated cameras that take and store images of passing vehicles’ tags, abbreviated as LPRs — has been put into overdrive.
Earlier this month, the ACLU released a study dubbed “You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used To Record Americans’ Movements.” The organization filed records requests with 587 law enforcement agencies from 38 different states regarding their “policies, procedures and practices” for LPRs. They heard back from 293 agencies.
What they believe they found is “pervasive, permanent monitoring,” the potential for abusive tracking, institutional abuse and discriminatory targeting against innocent, everyday people.
“And license plate readers can be used for tracking people’s movements for months or years on end,” the ACLU report said, “chilling the exercise of our cherished rights to free speech and association.”
Local law enforcement, though, said no such thing is happening.
Between the two of them, the Gwinnett County police and sheriff’s office operate 12 vehicle-mounted LPRs. GCPD uses its eight primarily for traffic enforcement (finding expired tags, suspended licenses) and has at least one on the road 24 hours a day. GCSO’s four LPRs are typically used only as deputies drive from one warrant location to another, Sgt. James Redfern said.
The devices read passing plates automatically and alert law enforcement officers when a tag matches one on a database, be it a list of wanted persons, registered sex offenders or suspended drivers, for example.
Whether it’s a match at the time or not, each image taken by Gwinnett’s police and sheriff’s departments is “stored in a secure data location” for five years before being auto-deleted, police Cpl. Jake Smith said. While the files are available, they’re used to help cases, not create them, authorities said — big brother isn’t building a map of John Q. Public’s daily travels.
“The files are only accessed if there is a suspect vehicle that needs to be researched for a criminal investigation or warrant for a person,” Smith said. GCPD got its first LPRs in the summer of 2011.
Said Redfern, whose overseen GCSO’s LPR program since its implementation in 2009: “The computer’s not doing anything a human eye can’t do … The information that’s actually being collected is not being used unless there’s a criminal investigation and warrant for that person. We’re not going through and saying, ‘Let’s see where Joe Blow is going.’”
The county’s five-year retention rate is on the higher end of the spectrum, according to the data collected by the ACLU, but certainly not unprecedented. Many departments had similar policies, and many more had no hard and fast rule about image retention periods.
All six of Gwinnett’s municipal departments have their own LPRs and policies.
Lawrenceville and Norcross police each have two units while the other four departments (Duluth, Lilburn, Snellville and Suwanee) use just one.
Suwanee Police Capt. Cass Mooney said his department’s LPR unit is used for things like traffic enforcement and searches for wanted persons, and also regularly sweeps the city’s parks for tags connected to registered sex offenders. Images are archived for about 30 days, he said, but “only searched in relationship to active criminal cases.”
“In other words, if we had a tag number on a suspect then we would search the database to see if that tag had been scanned,” Mooney said.
Snellville Police Capt. Greg Perry said his department stores images from its one LPR unit for about 90 days.
“Generally the system is used for immediate enforcement,” Perry said, “related to registration violations, insurance violations, and fugitive identification for those fugitives that the tag is linked to their active warrant.”
The Georgia State Patrol operates 33 plate readers throughout the state, primarily for enforcement of High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes like those on Interstate 85 in Gwinnett, a spokesperson said.
From a law enforcement standpoint, programs like those in Gwinnett have certainly been successful.
Redfern estimated that his office had “easily” made somewhere between 800 and 1,000 arrests thanks directly to LPRs. Gwinnett police have since stopped specifically tracking LPR-led arrests, but one month in 2011 netted four stolen vehicles and 55 wanted persons.
“The program has definitely been successful in terms of identifying wanted people, stolen cars, and also in some criminal investigations involving tags we needed to identify or associate with a particular person or vehicle,” Smith said.
But according to the ACLU, the arrests aren’t the problem — everything else is.
By storing so many files showing the tags, time and location of law-abiding citizens, law enforcement agencies are setting the stage for large scale invasions of privacy, the group said. Its report cited data from the Minnesota State Patrol: Of nearly 1.7 million plates scanned between 2009 and 2011, only 852 citations were issued and 131 arrests made.
“The above data provide a striking illustration of the wide dragnet that license plate readers often cast,” the report said. “Because they snap pictures of every passing vehicle, they generate millions of data points on the movements of individuals whom no one suspects of violating any law.”
The ACLU asked that “data about innocent people” not be stored “for any lengthy period.”