Tens of thousands of automatic license-plate readers are being installed across the nation, on police cars, light posts and bridge overpasses — and some Cobb municipalities are jumping into the surveillance fray.
At least two local police agencies are using the advanced cameras and tracking software that can scan hundreds of car tags in just a few seconds, then upload them to a data bank where they are stored forever.
Both the Marietta and Acworth police departments use what they call “LPRs,” or license-plate readers, and say the devices have been very successful in tracking criminals great and small.
“I don’t have any stats for you, but it works very well,” said Capt. Mark Cheatham with Acworth Police. “Two weeks ago, we located a stolen car and made an arrest off that case by using this technology.”
Acworth purchased one LPR two years ago at a cost of about $20,000, Cheatham said. It was paid for with a grant from the federal government.
When one of these devices snaps a picture of your car, it logs your license-plate number, as well as the date, time, and location. The high-speed scanners can log every passing car. The devices also allow an officer to initiate a “live search” by plugging in a specific tag number, which will automatically feed the officer information on whether that tag is associated with a suspected crime or traffic offense anywhere in the nation.
The technology is not new. The souped-up camera systems have been around for at least 12 years. But, until recently, most law enforcement agencies couldn’t afford them.
More companies are now making the systems and the prices keep getting cheaper.
“We priced the systems four or five years ago and quotes came in at $38,000 to $40,000,” Cheatham said. Now, you can get a system for less than half that amount.
Marietta Police Department has two LPR systems and, like Acworth, it retains the data it collects indefinitely and uploads the information to a nationwide database.
“We keep it indefinitely, and a lot of people are hung up on that,” said Cheatham, referring to privacy concerns. “The camera system stores all the photos but we’ll never even know we have a picture of your tag if you haven’t committed a crime. Unless we have a reason to suspect, we’ll never know.”
Marietta’s LPRs cost $14,000 apiece and were paid for with federal asset forfeiture funds, also known as seized drug money, said Officer David Baldwin, spokesman for the department.
“They’ve been very successful for us,” said Baldwin. “We’ve used them on a wide variety of things. We’ve gotten everything from the minor traffic violations, such as someone driving with a suspended license, to a wanted person to a stolen car.”
Many of the local police departments that don’t yet have LPRs are interested in them.
“We don’t have any. I wish we did,” said Bill Westenberger, police chief for the city of Kennesaw. “We did take a broad-brush look at them a little over a year ago but we had some other needs that took priority.”
Westenberger said his department recently tested an LPR system.
“We tested it out one weekend to see what the impact would be,” he said. “We found one or two people throughout the weekend who may have had suspended license issues. I don’t think the test period was long enough to truly gauge the effectiveness.
“I’d want to see what the benchmark would be on what’s useful and what’s not useful information. I’m not one who wants to keep unuseful information just laying there,” Westenberger said. “On the other hand, if something’s useful, then it is justified.”
Cobb County Police Department also has refrained from any LPR purchases to date.
“People feel like it’s Big Brother watching over us,” said Sgt. Dana Pierce, the public information officer for Cobb PD. “But the thing about it is, it has led to some arrests.”
Acworth bought its LPR from Elsag North America, which has a factory in Greensboro, N.C. Its website boasts that its systems can read “hundreds of plates per second” and can read them “from great distances” using infrared technology.
Elsag, like many private contractors, works in tandem with the federal government. It has been designated by the feds as a “Customs trade partner against terrorism,” according to its website.
While the technology is embraced enthusiastically by law enforcement, privacy advocates say they have concerns.
The American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday released an exhaustive study of LPRs and concluded that the systems are tracking law abiding citizens as well as criminals. The ACLU believes the data collected should not be retained indefinitely by law enforcement.
“In the not so distant future, it could be possible to assemble permanent records of nearly everywhere each of us has driven,” according to an article on the civil liberties watchdog’s website Thursday. “The American Civil Liberties Union is concerned about the immense amount of data being gathered on motorists who’ve broken no laws.”
The ACLU study, which pulls public records from nearly 600 police departments nationwide, found there are “virtually no rules in place to prevent a system that can eventually track everybody all the time.”
The article then quoted a D.C. Circuit Court judge’s ruling that said “A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.”
In New York City, for instance, the ACLU says police officers have reportedly driven unmarked cars equipped with license-plate readers around local mosques in order to record each attendee.