The sales pitch for automatic license plate readers is how great they are at helping cops solve crimes. From hunting down stolen cars to tracking pedophiles across jurisdictions, ALPRs supposedly make policing a breeze by gathering millions of time/date/location records every single day and making it all available to any law enforcement agency willing to buy the software and pay the licensing fees.
The systems come with civil liberties baggage — privacy issues that aren’t completely articulable, at least not in terms of what the courts have held to contain sufficient expectations of privacy. A single photo of a car on a public road isn’t a privacy violation. But what about dozens or hundreds of photos that more resemble a passive tracking system than a set of public snapshots? That’s a bit more of a gray area — one that hasn’t been fully explored by the courts at this point. Adjacent decisions notwithstanding, ALPRs are mildly intrusive and have troubling implications due to their capabilities, but at this point, they still operate within the confines of the Constitution.
So, if civil liberties are still intact, what’s the next point of attack? Maybe it’s the alleged efficiency. Are law enforcement agencies getting their money’s worth?
It’s a trick question. First and foremost, it’s the public’s money paying for these. In many cases, DHS grants have paid for ALPRs, with local agencies name-checking terrorism and extremism to increase the odds of obtaining funds. Even when paid for out-of-pocket, it’s still the public footing the bill.
The systems aren’t cheap. And from what VPR (NPR Vermont) has uncovered, they’re not really worth the expense. (via Digital Fourth)
Over the past five years, law enforcement agencies in Vermont have invested more than $1 million in technology that gathers millions of data points every year about the whereabouts of vehicles across the state.
Yet even with the millions of scans, the system has not led to many arrests or breakthroughs in major criminal investigations, and it hasnâ€™t led to an increase in the number of tickets written for the offenses the technology is capable of detecting.
No one sells a city council (or the general public) on the wonders of ALPRs by highlighting how many unregistered vehicles might be ticketed or pointing out other mundane traffic enforcement benefits they might provide. Probably just as well, considering these systems have had no discernible effect in these areas.
It’s the “big ticket” crimes that sell ALPRs and push them past the complaints of those concerned about citizens’ privacy and civil liberties. Kidnapping, auto theft, child pornographers, terrorism, etc. These are the sort of thing that put lead in legislators’ collective pencils, stirring them to approve funding or sign off on grant requests, and so on. How do Vermont’s ALPRs stack up against capital-C “crime?”
In the 18 months leading up to Jan. 1, 2013, the 61 license plate readers operating in the state at the time did a lot of recording. A VPR study of public information from local, state and federal law enforcement showed that during that time period, police across the state logged 7.9 million license plates and stored them in a central, statewide database along with the time and location they were scanned.
Despite the financial investment in the systems, they were helpful in solving fewer than five crimes in 2013. The number of tickets written for driving with a suspended license and driving with an expired registration (two violations that ALPRs can detect) hasnâ€™t gone up since the technology was introduced in mid-2009.
Millions of plates. Five (5) crimes solved. Number of tickets issued flat.
So, what do you do? As a legislator who approved funding for this, do you accept this as part of the learning curve or do you demand more from the technology? Do you tell the public, “We appreciate your input but feel that a literal handful of successful criminal investigations far outweighs any privacy issues or budgetary concerns”?
An interview with an officer who uses the ALPR system adds some nuance to the discussion, including the fact that law enforcement’s civil liberties precautions contribute to the perceived inefficiency of the system. But underneath it all, it’s viewed as just another “tool” for local law enforcement to use, albeit one that can’t seem to pull its own weight. No one wants to say the equipment is non-essential or possibly redundant, but the officer interviewed (Sergeant Cram) makes this damning statement.
Despite the $25,000 tool, Cram says the majority of the Winooski Police Departmentâ€™s traffic stops are still done the old-fashioned way, with officers stopping drivers for infractions like rolling through a stop sign or failing to yield at a crosswalk.
Still, Cram says the federally-funded ALPR is a valuable tool, even though he doesnâ€™t think the city would have put up $25,000 of its own money to buy one.
The city wouldn’t have ended up with one if the DHS wasn’t giving them away. That’s how extraneous this “tool” is. The lack of successful criminal investigations backs this up. The fact that traffic enforcement has remained stagnant even with the addition of several million plate scans per year is the final nail in the coffin.
No one — at least not in Vermont — needs this technology. But if someone else is willing to pay, they’ll take it. And they’ll use it. And years down the road, they’ll likely still have nothing to show for it but a massive database tracking the movement of millions of non-criminals.