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License Plate Reader Contract Approved in Davenport, Iowa

While the devices are touted as investigative tools — helping to locate stolen cars, missing persons and the like — privacy and civil rights advocates say the technology also raises concerns around misuse and surveillance.

An aerial view of Davenport, Iowa.
An aerial view of Davenport, Iowa.
Shutterstock/Jacob Boomsma
(TNS) — Davenport City Council members on Wednesday unanimously approved a contract that will give Davenport police an enhanced tool for tracking stolen vehicles, wanted criminals and abducted children.

The little-noticed, high-speed cameras mounted on police cars, road signs, bridges and poles photograph thousands of plates per minute. The devices convert each license plate number into machine-readable text and check them against agency-selected databases or manually entered license plate numbers, providing an alert whenever a match or "hit" appears.

Use of the devices has led to privacy concerns by the American Civil Liberties Union over how information collected by the readers — including the license plate number and the date, time and location of every scan — is being collected, shared and utilized.

In July 2012, ACLU affiliates in 38 states and Washington, D.C., sent public records act requests to nearly 600 local and state police departments, as well as state and federal agencies, to obtain information on how the agencies were utilizing license plate readers.

"The documents paint a startling picture of a technology deployed with too few rules that is becoming a tool for mass routine location tracking and surveillance," according to the ACLU's website.

"When used in a narrow and carefully regulated way, (automated license plate readers) can help police recover stolen cars and arrest people with outstanding warrants," according to the ACLU. "We believe there is a way to use (such readers) to promote public safety, while also protecting citizens’ civil liberties. The biggest problem with ALPR systems is the creation of databases with location information on every motorist who encounters the system, not just those whom the government suspects of criminal activity. Police departments nationwide are using ALPR to quietly accumulate millions of plate records, storing them in backend databases. We want to make sure that Iowa law enforcement are not violating the privacy rights of Iowa citizens."

And there have also been reports of police officers using data to stalk or harass people with whom they are romantically involved and others.

A federal jury on Friday awarded $300,000 to a woman who claimed in a lawsuit that she was stalked, harassed and threatened by former Rock Island County Sheriff Jeff Boyd while he was still in office.

"As license plate location data accumulates, the system ceases to be simply a mechanism enabling efficient police work and becomes a warrantless tracking tool, enabling retroactive surveillance of millions of people." the ACLU argues.

The ACLU has won court challenges in Virginia and California challenging the collection of ALPR data.

Local law enforcement argue the technology provides an invaluable asset to track, locate and apprehend wanted criminals and the subjects of Amber Alerts, and has already been proven to help locate stolen vehicles in short order.

Davenport police have been using an older system from Vigilant Solutions — the California-based company who will provide the cameras, software and tech support at cost of $168,029 — in two squad cars for the past two years.

The Scott County Sheriff's Department began using a unit in early 2019.

Davenport Police Maj. Jeff Bladel dismissed privacy concerns raised about by the ACLU over use of the license-plate readers.

"The data capture only captures images in public view," Bladel said. "There's no kind of enforcement we can do off of that information in and of itself. We develop a 'hot list' of different types of crime or investigative information, and all it does is compares both lists" to help recover stolen vehicles and for "scanning high-crime areas" to track or locate suspects involved in violent crimes, and to monitor that registered sex offenders are not violating restrictions that dictate areas where they cannot be.

"It has to rise to the level of probable cause to make any kind of enforcement from that," Bladel said. "It's an investigative tool to generate investigative leads. ... There is tight security on the system and checks and balances on the system," with the ability to track anyone who has accessed the system and what information they have accessed.

The system will be put in place to capture southbound traffic on Harrison Street and east-west traffic on Locust Street at Harrison Street. There also will be a system at Centennial Bridge, Bladel said.

©2020 Quad City Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.