(TNS) — ROCKFORD, ILL. — Dozens of license plate numbers scroll down a computer screen inside officer Timothy Stec's patrol car, one of five the Rockford, Ill., Police Department has outfitted with automated plate readers as it expands its use of technology — and its intelligence-gathering capacity.
Computer-controlled cameras installed on the squad car's roof automatically photograph the license plates of nearby vehicles as Stec drives in the area of Harrison Ave. and 20th St. The system wirelessly checks the information it gleans against national and state law enforcement databases.
"As you are rolling, it's running the plates that you are passing — cars that are passing you, parked cars that you are passing — and then it will give you an alert sound when it does hit on something," Stec said during a recent patrol.
Despite the financial challenges faced by the city, license plate readers are one part of Rockford's efforts to better equip the police force.
The automated license plate reader system displays the images of the plates and the plate numbers it identifies from the images. It emits an audible alarm and flashes an alert if it finds any plates registered to vehicles reported stolen, to owners wanted by the police or to drivers whose licenses were suspended or revoked.
Stec has used information gleaned from the automated license plate readers to help him recover three stolen vehicles in the past year, two of which he found parked at Chicago Rockford International Airport on separate occasions.
Mayor Tom McNamara said the City Council has invested $214,542 in the technology since January 2017. It also has bought pan-tilt-zoom cameras for high-traffic intersections and a gunshot detection system covering a small portion of the city, and plans to equip all squad cars with dashboard cameras.
In addition, aldermen increased the police force's authorized strength to 300 officers for the first time in a decade.
"Public safety is at the top of my list of priorities," McNamara said. "It is the top of the list for the vast majority of Rockford citizens. We needed to invest in our police department."
Although the city has spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars on mobile and stationary license plate reading technology since January 2017, it is difficult to determine how effective the devices are.
Police call license plate reader alerts "hot hits."
The devices photographed and recorded the locations of 233,906 vehicles last year by date and time. The information is kept for 90 days unless preserved for longer as part of a criminal investigation. Of those scans, 1,442, or 0.6 percent, were hot hits alerting officers to a suspect vehicle.
This year, through March, the mobile units captured 107,868 license plates, of which 555, or 0.5 percent, were hits. And through March this year, newly installed stationary license plate readers in two locations have captured plate information from 187,341 vehicles, recording 694 alerts.
It's unknown how many of those alerts led to the recovery of a stolen vehicle, a citation or an arrest. In response to an Illinois Freedom of Information Act request seeking the number and type of enforcement actions taken as a result of the technology, the department said it had no documents with that information.
But McNamara said crime statistics show the city is moving in the right direction by investing in police and technology.
"What we are doing is really working," McNamara said. "If you look at what happened between 2016 to 2017, we reduced violent crime by 8 percent and property crime by 5 percent."
Chief Dan O'Shea envisions plate readers, public video cameras, dashboard cameras and social network analysis as part of an eventual Rockford intelligence, or fusion, center where intelligence officers and crime analysts collect information and disseminate it to detectives and officers in real time.
O'Shea said license plate readers have provided detectives with information as they investigate crimes, led to the recovery of stolen vehicles and could help police locate criminal suspects.
"They work," O'Shea said. "Just picture a police officer running a license plate over the radio. That's one plate. Or typing one into a computer. As officers are driving around with these things, it's tagging a thousand cars a day."
That comes in handy when searching an area for a vehicle suspected of involvement in a shooting or other crime, O'Shea said.
"It's extremely time efficient for us," O'Shea said.
Stec, a 25-year veteran and a field training officer who mentors and trains officers, said that he has added the device to his toolkit while on patrol. Police commanders say he is among the most proficient officers on the force in its use. Even though the system is automated, it takes an officer to interpret the data it captures.
"You check that alert against the hit details, and against the picture you have, and determine if it's something you can take action on at that time or if it's an incorrect hit," Stec said. "A lot of time you will pass parked cars with suspended-revoked driver hits on them, but they are parked unoccupied, so you aren't able to take action at that time because the car itself is parked."
Mobile units are positioned on the squad cars in such a way that they capture information only from passing vehicles and cars parked on the street. They do not capture plate information from cars parked in residential driveways, a step taken to avoid invasions of privacy, O'Shea said.
"We don't want to go into personal space," O'Shea said.
This kind of technology raises ethical and civil rights questions, said Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
"In large measure you are always concerned when the government and police can capture information about where you are," Yohnka said. "It raises concerns if they are able to do it in a fashion that can create a record of where you have been over the course of day, a week or even a month."
Although it can be useful information for law enforcement, that kind of data also has the potential for abuse if used for reasons other than law enforcement, Yohnka said.
"It becomes a really powerful surveillance tool, and some limitations around them in terms of how they are used and how long the data is stored, is really important," Yohnka said.
Assistant Deputy Chief Doug Pann agreed that the technology has the potential for abuse. That's why, he said, there is limited access to the data even within the police department and there are procedures in place to track who accesses what data.
Pann said the department wants to increase the number of squad cars equipped with license plate readers, in addition to its network of public way cameras and the number of squads equipped with dashboard cameras, among other technologies.
Each can play a role in criminal investigations and each fits into the department's efforts to focus enforcement on the specific people who are causing the city's crime problems, Pann said.
"We used to do hot-spot policing ... and that's where we would cast a wide net over an area plagued by crime," Pann said. "But when you do that, you end up catching the single mom that's trying to get to work and has a suspended license. That's not really the person we are looking for. We are looking for those causing the problem. We know it's a small number causing the crime in the city. All of this intelligence, license plate cameras, gunshot detection, the social network analysis, it is all aimed at the people involved in crime."
©2018 Rockford Register Star, Ill. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.