(TNS) — In the five months since the Topeka Police Department began using automatic license plate readers, the devices have scanned license plates more than 721,500 times.
The readers take a photo of license plates and alert officers if a plate is associated with a stolen vehicle, stolen plate or an Amber or Silver Alert. The plate numbers can be run through databases maintained by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation or the National Crime Information Center.
The devices are beneficial to the community and the department, Topeka police Lt. Andrew Beightel said. Civil liberty advocates contend the scanners threaten privacy.
The department has five readers that are permanently mounted on separate patrol cars.
The system cost $92,875 and was purchased through asset forfeiture funds, Beightel said, so there was no cost to Topeka residents.
Of the 721,743 scans collected since November 15, 966 have registered an alert. Less than 1 percent of those — 270 — were valid hits. The rest, about 700, were rejected. Beightel said in those cases, the plate's numbers and letters matched a hit in NCIC, but the issuing state may have been different.
The police department retains all the license plate scans for 180 days.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas believes license plate readers pose a serious threat to privacy and civil liberties.
"While it is legitimate to use license plate readers to identify those who are alleged to have committed crimes, the overwhelming majority of people whose movements are monitored and recorded by these machines are innocent," executive director Micah Kubic said in a statement. "Ordinary people going about their daily lives have every right to expect that their movements will not be logged into massive government databases and kept there for months."
Kubic said law enforcement agencies should pursue other public safety avenues that don't impose serious privacy invasions.
In a report published by the ACLU, the organization recommends law enforcement agencies using the devices store data about innocent people for days or weeks, not months or years. It also says that authorities should refrain from using license plate reader data to generate reasonable suspicion. The report suggests that the public have access to see if their plate data has been collected and that agencies report their usage publicly on an annual basis.
TPD's license plate readers are one tool the department's technical investigative unit utilizes. The unit officially began April 7 and was re-melded from past positions to streamline computer forensics, Beightel said.
The department also has a drone, an in-house forensic cell phone lab and a diagnostic computer lab.
"With today's fast paced and ever-evolving digital age, computer forensics investigations are becoming much more needed," Beightel said.
Investigators can access digitally encrypted information and uncover other evidence using this form of forensic science, he said.
In addition to cyber offenses like computer hacking and child pornography, computer forensics have also helped solve crimes like murder, terrorism, organized crime, tax evasion and robbery, Beightel said.
©2018 The Topeka Capital-Journal, Kan. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.