Tuesday, Feb. 19 2013 5:34PM
License plate reader leads to arrests
By Russ Pulley
A license plate reader being evaluated by the Lee’s Summit Police Department is proving itself as a useful tool.
Now it remains for Police Chief Joe Piccinini to persuade the City Council that it will not be too much of an intrusion on privacy. And that it’s worth the $25,000 price for equipping a police car.
Piccinini has been presenting statistics and answering questions from members of the council’s Community and Economic Development Committee. The topic is scheduled for more discussion Feb. 20 at City Hall.
So far during the evaluation period, between Nov. 17 last year and Feb. 12, the system has resulted arrests in:
• 1 possession of drug paraphernalia
• 1 possession of drugs
• 1 false report
• 46 counts of driving while suspended or driving while revoked
• 1 driving while intoxicated
• 127 warrants
At a January meeting, Piccinini said the tool gives officers a new edge for taking dangerous drivers off Lee’s Summit streets, as shown by the results so far.
He said it’s hard to stop drunk drivers or other repeat offenders that have lost driving privileges from the Missouri Department of Revenue.
“Just because the Department of Revenue takes away your license, no one comes to your house and takes away your keys,” Piccinini said.
The system works like this: Law agencies across the nation put license plate numbers associated with a crime, such as a stolen vehicle, into a national data base referred to as the hotlist.
A car equipped with a license plate reader system has digital cameras that take pictures and record only the plate numbers as the police officer cruises through Lee’s Summit. A computer automatically compares the license plate numbers of cars the police officer encounters with the hot list. If there’s a “hit” it alerts the officer of the number. He can then “run” the plates, using a separate system to get about the car and registered owner.
Information on license plates that aren’t on the hit list is stored in a data base for possible future reference, but the officer at that time doesn’t have any interaction with them or any information about who owns those cars.
The system can be programmed to “hit” on license plate numbers of convicted sex offenders, known gang members and other special cases, such as “Amber Alerts” or “Silver Alerts” to help locate missing children or elderly people.
But storing data on residents who did not have any known connection with a crime was disconcerting to committee members.
Chairman David Mosby noted that a belief someone might be associated with a gang doesn’t mean they are actually a criminal.
He and other committee members said they trusted the department’s intent and Piccinini but are concerned about potential for future abuse.
“As an employee of the Department of Homeland Security, I know there are some extreme uses of these things,” Mosby said.
Councilmember Allan Gray asked how quickly information was updated and what racial information is stored in the license-plate reader system.
“Zero,” Piccinini said.
It only contains plates, time and locations where they were photographed on Lee’s Summit streets. A computer compares the plates to the hotlist, he said, and the officer would only get a generic alert, such a stolen car.
From that point an officer using the system would use standard police procedures to evaluate the situation. The officer would get additional information about the vehicles registration and police records through systems already in use by the department.
The officer would decide if stopping the car was legally justified.
Committee members said they trusted Piccinini but worried about potential abuses in the future.
Piccinini is to present additional information how long the city would store data collected by the system, which was an area of strong concern for the committee.
Councilmember Derek Holland said he could see those records becoming part of civil cases such as divorces and where such surveillance could lead.
In other nations and cities police are using street cameras to monitor citizens, he noted.
Piccinini explained retaining the data could be useful if the license plate of a car was linked to a crime at a later date.
For example, in an extreme case such as a murder, the stored data may be able to show whether a suspect’s car was in the area at the time of a killing or not, Piccinini said.
Holland said the shorter time license plate numbers and data from people who aren’t on the “hot list” are stored the more he is comfortable, but he still has concerns.
He said he likely would vote against buying the system, but did not want to stop the issue from going to the full council.
“I’m not convinced the law enforcement benefits from this outweigh the sacrifice of liberty we’re going to lose,” Holland said.