Colorado Cops Defend License Plate Readers as Tech Spreads

Like many local police departments, the cops in Greeley, Colo., have been steadily expanding their network of license plate-scanning cameras for years. And like everywhere else, the technology comes with controversy.

by Joe Moylan, Greeley Tribune, Colo. / January 27, 2020
Automated license plate reader (ALPR/LPR) cameras scan license plates of cars crossing into Pensacola Beach, Florida Flickr/Tony Webster

For about the last five years, the Greeley, Colo., Police Department has been steadily expanding its use of a not-so-widely-known technology that provides officers with certain pieces of personal information with the simple scan of a license plate.

On the one hand, law enforcement officials credit automatic license plate readers, or LPRs, with helping officers recover stolen property and remove violent offenders from the streets. On the other hand, opponents see license plate readers as a violation of an individual’s right to privacy.

Although Greeley police has been expanding its use of license plate readers, it’s not a new technology for the department. The agency acquired its first license plate reader around 2007, said Greeley police Chief Mark Jones.

The department has four license plate readers: two fixed units and two mobile units. Jones declined to comment about where the two fixed units are located, saying that revealing the locations would contradict their intended purpose. One of the mobile units is attached to a police cruiser, while the second is on a trailer that moves to different locations throughout the city.

A mobile unit costs $30,681, according to a May 2019 work session presentation to Greeley City Council. The cost includes a five-year warranty, installation, software licensing and helpdesk services. However, Jones said Greeley police acquired all of its license plate readers through grants.

A license plate reader captures, at a minimum, a vehicle’s license plate number, as well as the date, time and location it was scanned. They can also provide an officer with a variety of other information, such as whether the vehicle’s registered owner has a suspended license, an open warrant or if they’re an active gang member or a sex offender, to name a few. License plate readers can alert law enforcement if a license plate or a vehicle has been reported stolen or if it’s been tagged by other law enforcement agencies as a vehicle of interest.

“If you’re an officer driving around with a mobile unit, the feedback is instantaneous,” Jones said. “You know immediately if someone has a warrant, if the vehicle is stolen or if the owner is a sex offender.”

And with four units, Greeley police can collect a lot of data. According to the May 2019 report to city council, Greeley police’s license plate readers scanned 592,493 license plates in the month of April. 4,185 of those were attached to drivers with a suspended or revoked driver’s license. Officers recovered nine stolen vehicles and identified 655 people with open warrants. They also recovered 101 stolen license plates.

“People often ask what the big deal is about stolen license plates,” Jones said. “Stolen plates are a much bigger deal than just a stolen plate because people often steal license plates to decoy their movements when committing other crimes.

“When the license plate doesn’t match the vehicle, usually it means that’s probably a car we should be paying attention to because they’re probably up to something.”

License plate readers also are becoming an important investigative tool for the department, Jones said, and are used not just by the patrol and traffic divisions, but also investigations, the Special Enforcement Team and the Weld County Drug Task Force. Those specialty units employ the information compiled by license plate readers to search for suspects or to verify information provided by a witness, Jones said, such as the direction a getaway vehicle was traveling after a crime.

The information compiled by license plate readers goes into a statewide database accessible to Colorado law enforcement, Jones said. Data is automatically deleted after one year in accordance with state law.

Despite the benefits to law enforcement, some consider license plate readers an unnecessary piece of surveillance equipment that could too easily be used by police for non-investigative purposes, such as tracking the movements of “innocent” citizens.

“There’s nothing to stop them from tracking the movements of everyone,” said Denise Maes, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Colorado. “If they put it in front of a rape crisis center or a Muslim prayer house or a Planned Parenthood, it’s going to track everybody who goes in and out of those places, and I find that really worrisome.”

There have been cases of inappropriate use of license plate readers by law enforcement in cities across the country. Possibly two of the most infamous cases include a lieutenant in Washington, D.C., who in 1998 pleaded guilty to extortion for using license plate readers to blackmail vehicle owners who frequented a gay bar, according to a 2012 Wall Street Journal report. In 2015, the Los Angeles Police Department floated the idea of sending “Dear John” letters to the homes of men whose vehicles were scanned in areas of high prostitution, according to the local CBS affiliate.

Another one of Maes’ concerns is how common the technology has become, saying there are few places left where the motoring public can go without having their personal information instantly downloaded by police.

“They’re pretty big in Aurora, we know there’s a lot of them in Denver, we recently heard about them in Pueblo and now we’re learning about them in Greeley,” Maes said. “My guess is they’re a heck of a lot more pervasive than I could even imagine.”

In a 2012 report, the Police Executive Research Forum estimated 71% of all municipal, county, state and federal law enforcement agencies in the country use some form of license plate reader technology. Windsor police also has a license plate reader program, using one mobile unit that is detailed to investigations. The Weld County Sheriff’s Office has one vehicle equipped with a license plate reader used to find stolen vehicles and vehicles of interest. Evans police doesn’t have any license plate readers.

Maes’ biggest issue with license plate readers is the idea often pushed by law enforcement officials that they use the technology to keep the worst of the worst in check.

“I always think law enforcement searches for the worst-case scenario so they can sell you on this type of surveillance technology,” Maes said. “Hey, we’re going to catch sex offenders. Really? You’re driving around or you have it parked somewhere and you’re watching the comings and goings of everybody, or you’re scanning the parking lots of different places hoping to pick up something.”

But Jones cited the figures to say Maes’ perception of Greeley police’s license plate reader program is off base.

“Look at the volume,” Jones said. “Just because it hits 600 warrants doesn’t necessarily mean we’re making 600 arrests. We don’t have the ability to monitor this thing 24/7 and we don’t have time to run down people who aren’t already on the radar for other criminal activity.”

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©2020 the Greeley Tribune (Greeley, Colo.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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