The University of Central Florida has been scanning license plates since the beginning of the year to flag stolen or wanted vehicles, drivers with expired tags or suspensions and other possible criminal activity.
(TNS) — The University of Central Florida has installed cameras at all entrances and exits to scan the license plates of cars on campus and check them against law enforcement databases, officials said Thursday.
A university spokeswoman said the cameras had been installed since the beginning of the year and went into use this month. The data they capture – which officials said was limited to the information on a license plate and the date, time and place it was recorded – will be kept for a year.
A statement posted to UCF’s website said the devices would allow campus police to check those tag numbers “against national and state systems that flag stolen or wanted vehicles; search for license or tag expirations or suspensions; or alert for individuals with criminal investigative interest.”
The release described license plate readers as a “force multiplier for police.” UCF Police Chief Carl Metzger described the cameras’ purpose similarly in a campus-wide email Thursday.
“Simply put, UCFPD is not interested in monitoring anyone’s whereabouts with the exception of those who are likely to be connected to criminal activity," he said. “LPRs are a technology used at campuses and large facilities across the country, and we believe they are an important addition to UCF’s safety and security measures."
Plate-reader devices have been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union as posing privacy concerns, because they capture data on all vehicles that pass them, not just those involved in crimes.
In an interview, Metzger said he had gotten “a lot more positive feedback than negative” when discussing the devices with students and faculty, though “there have been a few questions about privacy." He said the cameras’ use would be “limited in scope.”
Metzger said the cameras would check driver tags against a “hot list” of cars suspected of involvement in criminal activity. When one is detected, the system sends an alert to UCFPD dispatchers, who can send an officer to confirm the tag was read accurately and investigate, he said.
He cited a 2017 case in which about three dozen cars were burglarized at UCF. The perpetrators were driving a car that had been reported stolen, which would have triggered an alert when they arrived on campus had the cameras been in place and “stopped those crimes in their tracks,” he said.
Asked whether the cameras would be used to investigate more minor offenses, like expired registrations, Metzger said the system has an “adjustable” threshold for what level of offense triggers an alert.
Without it, “I think we’d be inundated with information, and that’s not what we want,” he said.
UCF in its statement stressed it would own the data, which would “never be shared or sold,” though it also said UCFPD will “exercise discretion when sharing information with other law enforcement agencies to solve crimes, locate missing persons, and for other law enforcement purposes.”
Asked if that would include federal agencies, such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Metzger said that was outside the scope of the program.
“That’s not what the purpose is for at all,” he said. “I would call it traditional criminal activity. This is about keeping the campus safe, so that isn’t something that’s going to be a part of the equation for us.”
The police chief said he had gotten more questions about the cameras’ impact on parking than on campus security. In addition to its use in policing, the tag-reading technology will eventually be used to replace parking decals and hangtags, allowing drivers’ license plates to act as their parking permits.
As a result, the university also announced a change to its parking policy Thursday: Starting July 1, all drivers who park on UCF’s main, downtown, health sciences and Rosen School of Hospitality Management campuses will be required to park nose-in. Those who fail to do so face a warning or ticket.
“Like many other universities and municipalities embracing this technology around the country, UCF is joining the trend of transitioning to virtual permits for the sake of costs, sustainability, efficiency and safety," UCF’s assistant director for parking, Andy Rampersad, said in a statement. "Implementing the nose-in parking policy now will create a smoother transition for virtual permits, which is the longer term solution.”
In addition to being posted at entrances and exits, the cameras are also being mounted on some UCF parking and transportation vehicles and at the entrances and exits to one on-campus garage “as part of a pilot study,” officials said.
Courtney Gilmartin, a UCF spokeswoman, said the camera system cost $350,000, but about $300,000 of the price tag was covered by grants.
She said Thursday’s news would not come as a surprise to campus stakeholders.
“We’ve been talking about LPRs in our campus outreach for a while — everything from small meetings with students and employees to broader campus communication,” Gilmartin said, adding that Metzger spoke on the topic this month at a Student Government Association Senate meeting.
Metzger also mentioned “[f]orthcoming licence plate readers” in a campus-wide email about recent car crashes on campus in August, she noted.
The university’s announcement comes months after a lawsuit was filed against the city of Coral Gables in October, challenging its use of automated license plate readers. The suit, described by the Miami New Times as possibly the first in Florida targeting plate readers, argues the devices are an unconstitutional violation of privacy because they potentially allow law enforcement agencies to track where drivers go.
The suit is still pending. The city has filed a motion seeking its dismissal, which argues license plate information is in plain public view, so its collection cannot violate privacy rights.
Cory Goicoechea, a 23-year-old communications student, said Thursday he thought the plate readers are a “really good add-on” to the campus’ existing safety features.
“We’ll see what happens, but I think it’s a great safety tool we can use for stolen vehicles, wanted people and to make sure people are just not violating the law,” he said. “I think ultimately it’s going to create a better or safer community than what it is now.”
Danielle Kraus, a 21-year-old graphic design student, said she saw comments from students concerned about the cameras and didn’t understand why. Kraus said she’d like to do more research, but added, “I feel like UCFPD wouldn’t really do something and personally harm us.”
“There’s cameras everywhere,” she said. “How are these cameras different? I feel like I’m already being seen anywhere I go anyway.”
Michael Williams of the Sentinel staff contributed.
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