License-plate readersHigh-tech license plate readers effective, but raise ethical issues

Published 8 May 2012

The use of license-plate readers by police is growing, raising privacy concerns; cameras mounted atop the cruiser capture thousands of images a day; a computer inside the car checks the license plates against various crime databases, including wanted suspects, stolen vehicles, and sex offenders

Sumner county, Tennessee, law-enforcement officers have been using high-tech license plate readers for some time now, and say that the technology has led to the solving of several crimes.

Police maintains that the ability to capture the location of multiple license plates simultaneously is one of the most powerful crime-fighting tools at their disposal, and has already led them to vehicles used in crimes.

At the same time, the technology is considered by many to be a government surveillance, raising privacy concerns and pushing law enforcement agencies to determine how the information developed is used.

According to the Tennesseean, Gallatin detective James Kemp recognizes that there are many that would be concerned about an invasion of privacy, but he also maintains that “the possibilities are endless there for solving crimes. It’s just a multitude of information out there — to not tap into it to better protect your citizens, that’s ludicrous.”

Kemp, a former traffic officer, learned how easy it is to gather information. All he had to do was head out on his normal patrol, while cameras mounted atop the cruiser captured thousands of images a day. A computer inside the car checks the nearby license plates against various crime databases, including wanted suspects, stolen vehicles, and sex offenders. It also checks for tax dodgers. If the computer finds a match, a beep alerts the officer.

Local police also makes use of stationary cameras. An officer can key in a license plate, even a partial tag, and get information on where that vehicle was seen near a crime scene. The officer simply types in the license plate, even a partial, and receives from a database the locations and times of when that vehicle was seen.

“That’s the whole key: the databases,” said Hendersonville police Lt. Paul Harbsmeier. “If we collect so many tags just for Hendersonville, it doesn’t do any good for anybody else. Let’s say we catch somebody that was involved in residential burglaries, we might check that tag to see if they were in the vicinity of any other burglaries.”

The cameras, used by the European police agencies since the 1990s, first appeared in Middle Tennessee in 2007 in Franklin County and have become common throughout the region. The new stationary cameras coming to Sumner County will include the first three in the region to be permanently mounted alongside high-traffic roadways, instead of being attached to police cars.

Police said the stationary scanners will read more license plates per day, and will alert police when a wanted vehicle has entered the area.

According to the company that developed the systems, PIPS Technology in Knoxville, a majority of reader system sales are now for fixed locations. The opposite was true when the company launched in 2005, when 90 percent of systems were attached to police cruisers, according to Bryan Sturgill, a PIPS technology sales specialist.

There has been a major push among law enforcement agencies to expand the use of the reader-cameras. In Montgomery County, Maryland, police used a reader to find a suspect in the killing of a university professor. Last month, police in Downey, California, said they rescued a woman and her two daughters from a hotel after a plate reader pointed the police to the car driven by their abductor.

There has been legislative reaction to the license plate readers.

Officials in Columbia, Missouri have required police to purge the databases after thirty days, and legislators in Maine have passed legislation requiring a similar purge period.

Police has defended the readers as a tool to gather what is already public. “A license plate is what’s called plain view,” Kemp said. “It’s displayed right on a vehicle. It’s no different than officers driving around town and looking at your tags.” He added, “This license plate reader has no prejudice.”