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Tennessee City Debates Merits of License Plate Readers

The city of Lebanon, Tenn., is currently working through the details of a proposal that could introduce a network of plate readers. Police officials say the technology could reduce vehicle crimes in the city.

License plate reader
(TNS) — The Lebanon City Council is currently weighing the pros and cons of installing a new license plate recognition system around entrances to the city. During a work session Thursday, Police Chief Mike Justice addressed the Council regarding the software and what it might mean for the city.

"I feel like it's another tool we can utilize to keep our community safer," Justice said. "We see a lot of vehicles being stolen out of Nashville. When they enter our city they try to hit apartment complexes."
Lebanon Finance Director Stuart Lawson said during the meeting that the price tag for this project would be roughly $200,000 for the first five years. The first year would be marginally more expensive than the following four due to installation costs.
Lebanon Ward 1 Councilor Joey Carmack said of the price, "The possibility of preventing someone from being victimized is well worth the cost of the program. The citizens pay taxes to be protected, this is an extra layer of protection for the citizens of Lebanon."
Carmack's ward was recently the victim of one type of crime this system is intended to prevent — out of towners committing theft and burglaries. The chief confirmed the recent instance in which a stolen vehicle entered Lebanon and proceeded to an apartment complex on Fairview Avenue. Police reports state that while there, the suspects stole another vehicle and went to the Venue Apartments.
Justice said a vigilant officer noticed suspicious activity, pursued and apprehended two of the suspects. Justice said that if the monitors had been in place, when the initial stolen vehicle entered Lebanon, the police department would have been notified and could have intercepted them before the crime spree.
The chief estimates the city would need approximately seven detection devices located at Lebanon's major entrances. He said this number could change, but based on their research, those seven entrance sites would offer a definitive picture of out-of-town traffic coming into the city.
Justice pointed out that this technology is not new to Lebanon. The same monitoring devices are installed on some of the department's cruisers, and serve the same function as a stationary device would at the entrance to the city. He said they also use similar technology at the Wilson County Fair to monitor attendees.
Lebanon Ward 5 City Councilor Tick Bryan said, "I support it fully. Anything we can do to reduce crime, I support. "Mt. Juliet has been wildly successful with it," he added.


The council is looking to Mt. Juliet as it considers implementing the system. Mt. Juliet installed the devices in April 2020. Mt. Juliet Police Department's Captain Tyler Chandler said that the program has been a huge deterrent to crime in his city.
While impossible to track what crime has been prevented, the main priority was to tackle the growing number of vehicle theft and burglary incidents in the community," he said. "If you look at a before and after picture from installing the devices,the data shows vehicle burglary and thefts are down tremendously."
According to Chandler, incidents of vehicle theft and burglary were on the rise. Additionally, the captain said that many of the suspects apprehended as a result of these incidents were not Mt. Juliet residents.
"We'd seen an increase in out-of-towners coming to Mt. Juliet in stolen vehicles," he said. "They would then scour neighborhoods looking for unlocked cars." Chandler said that since the detection systems were installed in April 2020, the Mt. Juliet Police Department had made over 100 interceptions of stolen cars and wanted suspects. Mt. Juliet features 39 license plate recognition devices scattered around the city. It costs Mt. Juliet about $100,000 per year. Some high profile interceptions include a TBI Most Wanted murder suspect and a murder suspect from Louisiana.
In total, 57 stolen cars, 30 stolen license plates, and two stolen trailers have been recovered.


Questions about privacy were brought up during the work session. Most notably, the potential that this system be used to monitor traffic violations. Justice said that while the devices are equipped with cameras, they do not have speed monitoring equipment nor do they detect drivers who run red lights. According to the chief, it just tracks license plates and car information, cross referencing it with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations hot list.
The chief also said that the information collected would only be stored for a limited time, 30 days, unless the report became evidence in an investigation. Mt. Juliet Mayor James Maness said that when his city first installed the equipment the question of privacy was raised. However, according to both Justice and Chandler, the only way that a car is flagged is if it is already on that hot list. The cameras don't cross reference data from the DMV.
Due to the larger number of cameras in Mt. Juliet, their annual costs are higher than Lebanon's would be. Maness said that compared to the cost of man hours it would take police officers to monitor the locations with the same degree of accuracy would dwarf the annual costs of the machines which is about $100,000.
Maness said that the program almost didn't come to fruition. It was only after rules of engagements and privacy ordinances were enacted that they moved forward with the program. "We tried to make it as transparent as possible," said the mayor.
©2021 The Lebanon Democrat, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.