Tuesday, Nov. 27 2012 5:30PM
Police testing licenses plate reader
Community leaders will discuss civil liberty questions
By Russ Pulley
Lee’s Summit might be a step closer to “Big Brother” or merely adding a new law enforcement tool.
Which opinion prevails will decide whether the police department buys a license plate reader for one of its vehicles.
Right now the Lee’s Summit Police Department is using a loaner to test the Vigilant Video system to evaluate whether it wants to spend $25,000 to buy the product. The City Council will also be discussing whether it wants police using it.
Vigilant Video consists of several high-speed cameras mounted on a police cruiser which can take pictures of vehicles and license plates passing the police car, even at 40 miles per hour, capable of processing 1,000 plates an hour. The system automatically compares license plate numbers against federal and state records for stolen automobiles or arrest warrants. It also could be programmed for alerts of Lee’s Summit warrants.
Once there is a “hit” the system beeps and provides the officer with the plate number and picture of the vehicle that was a match. From there the officer takes over.
The officer could “run” the plates to get specific information, such as who is the registered owner, and then decide on the next appropriate steps.
“This is a tool for us to do our job more efficiently,” Police Chief Joe Piccinini said. “It is still about the officer doing basic police work once this system has given the officer information.”
License plate readers used by Kansas City, Blue Springs, Grandview, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department and Missouri Highway Patrol, he said.
The City Council became aware of the issue when City Manager Steve Arbo and Piccinini informed it that the department is testing the system. Councilmember Derek Holland, at a recent council meeting, said he has philosophical objections to the system and asked for a council committee to review the issue. Holland, in an interview, said that when he was young he’d read George Orwell’s classic novel “1984” and it made a big impression on him.
“In the past, they (police) need to have probable cause to even run the license plate,” Holland said. “We need to decide if we’re willing to be under constant surveillance by our police department.”
Holland said he did not think the plan was an “evil design” on the part of the police, but he’s gravely concerned that Americans continue to lose privacy and if the reader was another step down that road.
He said he has questions about how long information gathered by the reader would be stored by the police and how it would be used.
“Let’s examine the costs versus the benefits,” Holland said. “Why are we in need of this, what will it do to make Lee’s Summit a better community?”
At the meeting, Councilmember Brian Whitley said he is a “strong proponent of keeping the vermin” off our streets and supports the initiative. He said he doesn’t want council discussion to “stonewall or delay” use of the system.
That probably wouldn’t be the case, because the department has just started its evaluation, Piccinini said. The department wants to compare a couple of similar systems to the one it is testing.
Piccinini said he’d read studies that indicate that once people are familiar with the system and its safeguards, about 75 percent are comfortable with its use, but 25 percent still don’t think it is appropriate. Piccinini said that an officer does not need probable cause to run a license plate, because it is in plain view and part of public domain.
He said using the readers can be compared to looking at video surveillance tapes of a store parking lot, a standard police procedure when investigating a crime. But, Piccinini acknowledged that issues of storing data and its use need to be discussed.
A decision on how long to keep the data, whether it would be 30 days or the maximum five years allowed by federal regulations would have to be made.
Piccinini said only police officers would access the data, it would be encrypted and stored in a secure data base, following federal regulations and under control of the department’s Intelligence Officer. Officers who want to use the stored information would need to make a formal request and it would be only for law enforcement purposes, Piccinini said.
On the streets, it could be helpful for other purposes besides looking for stolen cars. It can be programmed to match license plates with Amber Alerts or missing persons or give alerts if the registered owner is a sex offender, information the officer would want to know if the vehicle is in the vicinity of a playground or school, Piccinini said.
Piccinini said he’d expect the car to be shared by four officers who’d use it for normal patrol activities. As they perform their duties the cameras would run in the background until there’s a hit.
On some occasions if there is a particular problem in a neighborhood, such as a rash of burglaries, vandalism or stolen cars, the car equipped with the reader might be assigned to patrol there so it could collect evidence that might later show a particular car was frequenting that area.
Piccinini said the department regularly is looking for elderly people with memory problems who may have taken the family car and gotten lost. The system can be set to alert the officer if that vehicle passes.
Piccinini said another advantage of automation is that officers using it won’t rely on memory.
“We’re human,” Piccinini said. “In the days when I drove on patrol I’d write plate numbers on paper. After a few pages and a few days, I wouldn’t remember everything.”