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More Chicago Suburbs Deploy Automatic License Plate Scanners

Vernon Hills, Ill., is set to become the latest community to use newer technology designed to help police and aid investigations by automatically scanning license plate numbers of cars that pass through the village.

by James T. Norman, Pioneer Press Newspapers / March 10, 2020
Automated license plate reader (ALPR/LPR) cameras scan license plates of cars crossing into Pensacola Beach, Florida Flickr/Tony Webster

(TNS) — Vernon Hills, Ill., is set to become the latest suburb in the Chicago area to start using newer technology that is designed to help police and aid investigations by automatically scanning license plate numbers of cars that pass through the village.

But like with any technological advancement, the automatic readers come with its share of pros and cons. Some police departments in Lake County have raised concerns with the reliability of the images collected on the devices and privacy concerns to both residents and law enforcement.

Last month, Vernon Hills officials approved an agreement to lease 10 stationary cameras with the ability to automatically scan license plates at a cost of $20,000 a year.

The final vote came after Police Chief Patrick Kreis and Deputy Police Chief Patrick Zimmerman made their case to village board members for the technology. Zimmerman told trustees the readers can capture vehicle registration information, along with the color and type of vehicle.

“The system also has the capability to think like a detective," Zimmerman said. "It can recognize manufacturer’s logos, their shapes, their rear light design.”

The new cameras, which will be housed within a weather-proof unit and run on solar power, will not be mounted at any intersections because of their size, Kreis said.

Vernon Hills police won’t divulge the exact locations of all the readers, but one likely location will monitor activity on the east and westbound lanes along Route 60 near the Des Plaines River, he said.

The department did have some reservations when researching the new equipment because of the reputation of similar legacy systems that were older, and known to be unreliable and require too much maintenance, Kreis said.

But the vendor that is a part of the village’s new agreement, Flock Safety, seems to have fixed many of those issues, he said, adding how he also contacted other departments that have used similar technology already.

In nearby Mundelein, officials recently moved away from using a single roaming camera that the police department was using for a half decade.

Officials in Highland Park, meanwhile, are in the process of acquiring an automatic license reader, but they want to use it in a limited capacity when enforcing parking violations. Vernon Hills’ northern neighbor, Libertyville, also doesn’t use the technology, but officials said they have begun researching it.

Mundelein Police Chief Eric Guenther said his department decommissioned its roaming camera last year after about six years of regular use.

While the camera was at the end of its life and needed to be replaced or repaired, Guenther said he felt the technology wasn’t providing an added benefit with the department’s criminal investigations.

Police encountered technological issues regarding hot sheets the department uses for certain criminal investigations, saying officers often ended up having to update and review the list. But the camera assisted well with acquiring information on suspended driver’s licenses, he said.

“It never quite flowed the way it was supposed to,” Guenther said.

The constant movement of traffic patrols also posed difficulties, he said. If a police officer was driving in one direction, the camera oftentimes would register a hit on a car going the opposite direction.

“That officer has to manually run (and look) at that screen and physically identify that vehicle that is passing him,” Guenther said. “To do that and whip around and find that car, it just doesn’t happen quite often.”

While Vernon Hills is adding stationary cameras, Kreis said the department looked at the remote option but determined it didn’t meet the department’s needs.

The remote option does provide its own set of benefits but it’s not always helpful with criminal investigations, which is what prompted the village to start researching the technology, he said.

Kreis said he still can recall how an investigation that included Vernon Hills and spanned years into a crime ring involving hundreds of burglaries across the Chicago area greatly was helped out by portable makeshift cameras picking up license plate information.

When addressing trustees last month, Kreis specified the department wouldn’t use the scanner technology beyond criminal investigations. If someone were to call the department and ask police to find out where their spouse was headed, officers wouldn’t cooperate, he said.

Information stored by the cameras in Vernon Hills also would be removed after 30 days, he said. But Vernon Hills police do acknowledge that the cameras aren’t guaranteed to capture a usable image.

Traffic congestion, as well as certain license plate covers, can make it challenging to find reliable information, said Kreis, who noted how any type of license plate cover is illegal in Illinois.

“I’m confident it’s going to help us solve crimes,” Kreis said. “And when we can solve one crime, we are solving multiple crimes.”

In Highland Park, police are acquiring an automatic reader to help officers with parking enforcement, said Police Chief Lou Jogmen. While the department isn’t looking to use it for criminal investigations, the technology still seems to add value to different parts of police work, he said.

“We’re doing something similar to (parking enforcement) and we’ll probably grow the program,” Jogmen said.

But he said his department is going to stop short of linking information collected from the devices to national databases.

In Vernon Hills, police are planning to cross-check information picked up by the cameras with data maintained by the National Crime Investigation Center, Kreis said.

The cameras will take images of the plates and run them against the center’s hot sheet. If there is a hit, police within the department will be notified, Kreis said.

Other concerns with the new technology were related to privacy, not only from residents, but from Vernon Hills police, as well.

Kreis said they vetted privacy concerns when looking into the technology, including whether any of the information would be used or sold to a third party. He said he confirmed that wouldn’t happen with the department’s new agreement.

“(The information) is only available to us and we are only going to use it for criminal investigation purposes,” he said.

Jogmen said that while his department will start tinkering with the technology, Highland Park police doesn’t have plans to expand it at the moment.

“We’re certainly always interested in any technology that will help law enforcement,” Jogmen said. “But with any technology comes constant evaluation of its ability to do what it sets out to do. Cost is always a factor and obviously comfort level for everyone involved.”

©2020 Pioneer Press Newspapers (Suburban Chicago, Ill.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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