August 16, 2012

Police using car-top cameras to photograph license plates

Fort Worth, Arlington and Grapevine are among growing number of cities equipping police cars with cameras that take photos of vehicles' license plates. Critics say this is too close to unauthorized spying.

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Civil libertarians are shuddering at the latest police trend involving the use of cameras to check license plates.

Police in Fort Worth, Arlington, Grapevine and a growing number of other cities are using automatic camera systems to take photographs of passing vehicles' license plates. The cameras are typically mounted on a patrol car's light bars and can easily take pictures of license plates at a distance of 50 feet or more -- and many systems can shoot hundreds of photographs per hour.

The officer can then view the results of the photographs while behind the wheel. Because of recent advances in software, it is now possible for computer programs to "read" the license plate numbers on the pictures nearly instantaneously, look up the number in a crime database and notify the officer within a few seconds if a stolen car or a motorist with an outstanding arrest warrant is passing by.

Supporters say it's an efficient way for police to recover stolen property and get criminals off the streets.

"We've found it's very helpful to have them on marked patrol units because it really assists the officers in conducting their daily duties," said Arlington police Sgt. Christopher Cook. "It's almost instantaneous because it's not just checking registration information. It's just reading plates when you're driving down the street. If you've got a whole line of cars, it's typically going to read all those vehicles."

But others worry that the high-tech devices are creating a new way for authorities to spy on unaware -- and, in many cases, undeserving -- members of the public.

The American Civil Liberties Union is asking police departments nationwide to explain how long they hang onto photos and other data collected by automatic license plate readers, and what they do with the information. The ACLU has submitted open records requests to agencies in several major Texas cities, including the Fort Worth Police Department, the Tarrant County Sheriff's Department and the University of North Texas System.

Tarrant County and UNT don't use the equipment, officials in those agencies said.

Big data collection

"We want to know who has access to the information, who sees it and how long it is kept," said Dotty Griffith, public education director for the ACLU of Texas.

ACLU affiliates in 38 states and the District of Columbia are seeking information about the camera systems from law enforcement agencies.

"Tracking and recording people's movements raises serious privacy concerns. Where we go can reveal a great deal about us, including visits to doctor's offices, political meetings, and friends. Without probable cause, that's none of the government's business," ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke said in a statement. "Texans deserve to know how this information is being used and we need legal protections to limit the collection, retention and sharing of our travel information."

Police say they're using the camera systems like they would any other fact-gathering tool.

But some cities -- including Grapevine -- don't have a policy on what to do with the data.

"Right now, the technology has made leaps and bounds a little wider than the state can regulate with its laws," said Robert Eberling, a police sergeant in Grapevine, where officials are discussing what to do with more than 1.7 million license plate snapshots that have been captured automatically by the electronic cameras since April 17. "We are currently developing our policy on that. It's up to each police department."

Grapevine took a slightly different tack than many other cities. Instead of placing the cameras on patrol cars, officials mounted them on traffic signal poles around Grapevine Mills mall.

During the past four months, photographs taken there have helped officers recover nine stolen vehicles, make eight arrests, locate one adult missing person from Fort Worth and bring in a young runaway from Iowa.

Officer verification

Arlington is among the many cities that mount the cameras atop its patrol cars. Four vehicles there have been equipped with four cameras each, Cook said. The cameras are mounted on the light bars and can take pictures of license plates in front of or on both sides of the police car.

An officer parked on a shoulder while working speed enforcement on a highway, for example, can let the license plate reader check for stolen car or warrant "hits" on hundreds of cars passing by per hour. Or, an officer can simply drive through a parking lot -- say, a shopping center, or a sports stadium -- and take images of parked cars.

Cook did stress that the readers occasionally get the plate number wrong, and it's up to the officer to verify that the plate number in the photo matches the one in the crime database before making a traffic stop.

He also said Arlington has a fifth camera system mounted on a static display, rather than a patrol car, that can be used to check plates at major events such as those at Cowboys Stadium or Rangers Ballpark.

Arlington's camera system was bought in 2010 and cost $140,000, which was covered by a Homeland Security grant, Cook said.

Grapevine's system was installed this year and was paid for with $125,000 in crime tax funds, Eberling said.

Fort Worth also uses automatic license plate readers, but police spokesman Pedro Criado declined to discuss details.

"Please keep in mind that answering more specific inquiries would be delving into the operational aspect of the devices, and that would be inappropriate to discuss at this time," Criado said in an e-mail.

In Arlington, police delete information obtained by automatic license plate readers after one year, Cook said.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson

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