Fort Worth

Tiny Blue Mound awaits high-tech license plate readers

Two Blue Mound police cars will soon be equipped with automatic license plate readers.
Two Blue Mound police cars will soon be equipped with automatic license plate readers. Star-Telegram

About a year ago, a salesman from a California company approached the police chief of tiny Blue Mound, population 2,500, and made him an offer:

Two $30,000 automatic license plate reading systems, capable of capturing, scanning and filing plate numbers from a camera atop a patrol car — at no charge.

“We’ve never had that before,” said Chief Barry Hinkle, whose jurisdiction between north Fort Worth and Saginaw covers less than a square mile. “We’re a small city. When we have a chance to use technology, we take it.”

But the sweet deal Blue Mound will be receiving from Vigilant Solutions hasn’t come without criticism from privacy advocates.

Not only will Blue Mound be getting free automatic license plate readers (ALPR) for two patrol cars — likely to be installed within a few weeks — each camera system will come with a credit card machine, so drivers can pay outstanding warrant costs during traffic stops.

As incentive for providing the system, Vigilant will collect a 25 percent surcharge from every roadside transaction.

It’s part of the company’s pilot “Warrant Redemption Program” with fewer than a dozen other agencies in Texas. Vigilant provides the technology, but it can also take it away at any time.

“I’m very concerned any time law enforcement becomes business for a profit,” said state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, who tried passing a bill last year to limit how long agencies can maintain license plate data. “It shouldn’t be used as a way for private companies to profit. The incentive there is to pull more people over.

Hinkle views the program as a matter of convenience.

“If I’ve got a mother of three that forgot to pay a ticket, I’ve got an opportunity to say, ‘Look, if you want to pay that warrant now, you can do it now,’ ” Hinkle said. “ ‘The benefits are, you’re not going to go to jail.’ 

‘Mobile data miners’

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, sees the program differently: In a January blog post, EFF said the Warrant Redemption Program is “turning Texas police into mobile debt collectors and data miners.”

The American Civil Liberties Union warned about the automatic readers in a 2013 report called “You are being tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used to Record Americans’ Movements.”

Unlike a handful of states, Texas doesn’t regulate tracking license plates, and the practice falls within the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act.

The plates, Hinkle and a Vigilant spokesman said, are considered anonymous, “point-in-time” data.

“There is no personal information collected or accessed” about the car’s driver, Hinkle said.

The automatic readers, though, can amass millions of pictures of license plates, most of which are on cars driven by law-abiding citizens, critics say.

Grapevine police, for example, installed a camera system at Grapevine Mills Mall in 2012 for $125,000. Keeping the data for a year, the department has more than 3,700,000 license plate pictures on file.

Data in large quantities like that can be used to form patterns about a person’s life, said Matt Simpson, an Austin-based senior policy strategist with ACLU of Texas.

“We prefer this ‘no-hit data’ not be kept,” Simpson said. “It shouldn’t be maintained. There’s a pretty specific reason for that. If you put in a person’s license-plate data, you can determine what church they go to, who their doctor is, and get a sense of their medical condition.”

How it works

When Blue Mound’s cameras are installed, the city will provide Vigilant with a “hot list” of outstanding warrants, which could include Class C violations, and plate numbers of stolen vehicles, Hinkle said.

Officers will then be able to compare the hot list with Vigilant’s database of license plates through a partnership with Fort Worth-based Digital Recognition Network.

DRN scans about 80,000,000 license plates a month, pooling from cameras affixed to private repossession vehicles.

Blue Mound police will be able view the last-pictured locations of vehicles tied to outstanding warrants. Or they can cruise through town and capture every license plate in sight — all of them by the second.

If the camera catches a plate matched to the hot list, the officer will be alerted. If not, each plate number will be stored on the department’s computers.

Hinkle, who calls himself a “privacy freak,” said the city usually deletes nonevidence data after 90 days.

“Vigilant has no rights to the data,” he said. “If I found out otherwise, I’d recommend that we stop the program.”

Vigilant spokesman Brian Shockley said, “there is no option to share [data] to Vigilant whatsoever.”

Vigilant has no rights to the data. If I found out otherwise, I’d recommend that we stop the program.”

Blue Mound Police Chief Barry Hinkle

Still, critics are concerned about police collecting large numbers of license plate pictures, whether that information is shared with private businesses or not.

Vigilant provides ALPR technology to about 3,000 law enforcement agencies, Shockley said.

In addition to Grapevine, Fort Worth and Arlington police have ALPR systems.

Arlington bought five cameras for $140,000 in 2010 – four for patrol vehicles and one stationary camera to monitor traffic outside AT&T Stadium and Globe Life Park.

Fort Worth owns two but only uses them for “special events,” a spokeswoman said..

Rinaldi’s proposed bill would have limited data retention to seven days, meaning police would have to get rid of nonevidence data after a week.

The data, Rinaldi said, “becomes a way to track your past movements.”

Decatur trying system

In Decatur, where police started Vigilant’s pilot program last year, Chief Rex Hoskins isn’t sure whether ALPR technology is right for the town.

Decatur police have caught only 12 “hits” and they haven’t used the credit card system. They still refer drivers to pay warrants at city offices to avoid the 25 percent surcharge.

“To be honest with you, [Vigilant] was banking on us using it and going through their credit card system,” Hoskins said. “We really took advantage of it so we could get more warrants collected. As of right now, it’s a tool. I have not seen the benefit yet.”

Other agencies in the pilot program have had more lucrative experiences.

Near San Antonio, Guadalupe County has collected about $208,000 in the last year, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

“The license reader program was presented as a way to catch felons, stolen vehicles and kidnappers,” Guadalupe County Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace Sheryl Sachtleben told the Statesman. “Not to cruise Main Street and hit on $50 warrants from 12 years ago.”

Blue Mound officers will have “sole discretion on what they should or shouldn’t be doing,” Hinkle said.

“If you’re going to a family domestic disturbance call,” Mayor Alan Hooks said, “that’s probably going to need to get taken care of more than somebody that might be driving around with a warrant.”

Automatic license plate readers in Tarrant County

Blue Mound: Expecting two ALPR cameras with credit card machines to collect warrant fees at roadside.

Arlington: Five ALPR cameras purchased in 2010 for $140,000. Four are on patrol cars, and one monitors traffic outside AT&T Stadium and Globe Life Park.

Fort Worth: Two ALPR cameras used for “special events.”

Grapevine: Nine ALPR cameras used only at Grapevine Mills Mall. Grapevine PD has more than 3,700,000 license plate pictures on file.