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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

License Plate Readers

During this year’s legislative session concerns about automated license plate readers (ALPR) surfaced. Duluth PD has utilized this technology for several years and currently has two ALPRs that are attached to marked squad cars. They read thousands of plates an hour and notify the officer of stolen vehicles, registered vehicle owners who have warrants, vehicles with excessive outstanding parking tickets as well as when the owner has a suspended or revoked driver’s license. Additionally, we can enter and search for license plates where someone’s life is being threatened. We have found this technology is a force multiplier, as we do more with less. Officers looking manually with their own eyes are not nearly as effective as an ALPR. An ALPR can also provide critical data for criminal investigations. For example, several years ago we were investigating a kidnapping that occurred in a western area of the city. Two days after the offense we entered the suspect’s license plate into the ALPR database and discovered he had driven past an ALPR-equipped squad car on Grand Avenue. The time, date, and GPS coordinates were documented in the database. This information corroborated the victim’s report and provided critical data to help solidify the case. There are cases throughout the country where lives have been saved, highlighting the critical role ALPR can play in critical investigations. To date the Supreme Court has not applied the Fourth Amendment to police surveillance in public, even if it is augmented by technology. So, you may ask what, is there a problem with this technology? Well, there are a few issues we are trying to work through as technology continues to evolve in policing. First, there were issues with ALPR data and its privacy, specifically who can access it and when. That has been resolved and the data is now considered private. The ACLU recently brought up concerns about the retention of ALPR data. Duluth PD policy calls for ALPR data to be deleted after 30 days; after that, it is erased and can no longer be recovered. But 30-day retention is rare and most departments in the U.S. and Canada retain the data for six months to several years. The issue of data-retention was an issue at the Capitol this year. A few legislators are concerned about the potential for abuse of the ALPR data. We retain all ALPR data access and conduct a periodic review to ensure it is being used for appropriate police investigations. To me, this is like any other resource for police: The rules for accessing the data must be crystal clear and there must be tracking for who accessed the data, why and when. We must balance the use of technology through thoughtful policies. To limit the use of technology such as ALPR gives the bad guys another step up on those of us who are working hard to keep our communities safe.

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