Last month the American Civil Liberties Union issued a report entitled You Are Being Tracked - How License Plate Readers Are Being Used to Record Americans' Movements. This story was widely covered by media outlets throughout the country (see the CNN story below).
The ACLU report details the way police departments around the country are using automated license plate readers (ALPR). These sophisticated ALPR systems use high speed, infrared cameras mounted on patrol cars to capture and record photographs of the license plates of every vehicle they encounter. Using software, the license plate images are compared to a "hot list" and alerts the officer when there is a match. Police say the "hot list" is updated daily and include the plate numbers of stolen vehicles and vehicles used in crimes.
Last year the ACLU sent 587 records requests to police agencies in 38 states and the District of Columbia seeking information on how these ALPR systems were being employed. The ACLU received back 293 responses and used this information to produce the report You Are Being Tracked. One of the law enforcement agencies that responded to the ACLU's request and featured in this report is the Burbank Police Department.
PROS AND CONS OF THIS TECHNOLOGY
Law enforcement contend this new technology is an important tool in fighting crime. In a blog last month, the Los Angeles Police Protective League wrote that license plate recognition helped with "thousands of cases nationwide" and cited the example of how this technology was used to apprehend a suspect in a violent rape and sodomy case.
Critics including the ACLU believe the ALPRs pose serious privacy threats and open the door to abusive tracking. In a written statement the ACLU stated, "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."
BURBANK POLICE DEPARTMENT'S USE OF ALPR
It appears that the Burbank Police Department has made use of ALPR technology since 2011.
Documents obtained by the ACLU from the Burbank Police indicate that between August 2011 and July 2012, 706,918 license plates were read and stored by their ALPR system producing a hit rate of .3% when compared to the "hot list."
When asked for comment, Burbank Police Division Chief Mike Dudlo responded: "The Burbank Police Department understands the public is worried about 'Big Brother' watching. However; the ALPR has helped in the numerous investigations within this Department and has helped with investigations of other jurisdictions. Keeping the public safe and solving crimes are key components of police work. If a criminal knows we have this technology, maybe they will think twice about committing a crime. The ALPR is another tool in our arsenal and is assigned / used on every shift."
The ACLU report makes certain recommendations to insure ALPR technology is used for legitimate purposes without infringing upon Americans' privacy. The Burbank Police Department's internal policy on the use of ALPR data conforms closely to the principles the ACLU sets forth.
Perhaps the single issue the ACLU takes the most exception to, are law enforcement agencies that store ALPR data for years or indefinitely. The ACLU recommends that "Law enforcement agencies must not store data about innocent people for any lengthy period. Unless plate data has been flagged, retention periods should be measured in days or weeks, not months, and certainly not years." Currently Burbank retains ALPR data for 21 days, one of the shortest periods the ACLU noted.
Officer Dudlo stated, "The Burbank Police Department is in the process of possibly extending the ALPR retention period of 21 days to 30 days. This time period will coincide with the retention periods of our 911 call center and LEADS (Law Enforcement Agencies Data System) data bases. We just want to have that consistency with all data bases so there is no confusion down the road."
Officer Dudlo pointed out "Pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the Burbank Police Department would have to release such information if a FOIA request was received. Those requests must go through the City of Burbank Clerk's Office."
THE TECHNOLOGY - AUTOMATED LICENSE PLATE READERS
PRO - PROTECTING OFFICERS AND THE PUBLIC WITH LPR TECHNOLOGY
CON - LICENSE PLATE READERS POSE PRIVACY RISKS
BURBANK POLICE ALPR SYSTEMS DOCUMENTS
In March 2010, Thomas E. Gename, Captain Administrative Services, submitted on behalf of the Burbank Police Department a grant application. The Justice Assistance Stimulus Grant application requested a total of $69,505.00 for "Equipment and Technology Improvements and Upgrades." The application specified the grant funds would be used to purchase Mobile Digital Video Recording Equipment, Automatic License Plate Recognition System (ALPR), Dell Mini Tower Computers, and Traffic Speed Radar System. The application states the equipment purchased from the funds "will help detect, investigate and assist in the prosecution of crime related activities. In addition expanding and upgrading the technology used by the Department will help identify unusual behavior; prevent criminal incidents before they occur and assist in the investigation of incidents after they occur."
A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by the Illinois State Police and the B.P.D. in July 2011 regarding the use of the LEADS database. Illinois Law Enforcement Agencies Data System (LEADS) is a statewide, computerized, telecommunications system, maintained by the Illinois State Police, designed to provide the Illinois criminal justice community with access to computerized justice related information. The MOU states; "The ISP maintains the LEADS system of records containing multiple files; Vehicle and License Plate files that contain information relating to stolen vehicles or license plates and vehicles in association with records entered in the Wanted and Missing Person files. Additionally, the SOS maintains the vehicle registration records and provides information relating to license plates that are suspended or revoked pursuant to violations of the law."
An invoice dated September 2011 from United Radio Communications of Bridgeview, IL shows the Burbank P.D. purchased ALPR related equipment totaling $31,170.00.
On November 1, 2011, Chief of Police Bruce Radowicz issued General Order 2011-01, an internal memo bearing the subject line: Automated License Plate Recognition Systems (ALPR). The purpose of this memo was "To establish policy and procedures for the use and oversight of the department's Automated License Plate Reader (ALPR) technology." The memo goes on to state "By making officers better informed and alerting them to potentially dangerous situations, the department believes that ALPR technology will enhance both public and officer safety, while increasing an officer's efficiency and effectiveness at apprehending criminals and dangerous drivers, as well as, recovering missing or endangered persons and stolen vehicles."
Audit data turned over by the Burbank Police Department to the ACLU reflecting license plate numbers (redacted) that generated a 'hot list' hit. Additional data reflect monthly statistics; Reads, Misreads, and Hits between July 2011 and July 2012.