Local Police Using Controversial New Technology

By: Shannon Kantner Email
By: Shannon Kantner Email

If you're like most people, you probably don't know your license plate number, but chances are your local police department does.

There's new technology available in cop cars called Automatic License Plate Readers.

Police say they help fight crime, but drivers say it's an invasion of privacy.

Meridian Township Police was the first in the area to get the technology back in 2009 through a grant. They helped four other local agencies get the devices as well. The data collection is more wide spread that way, which has police happy and people concerned.

"It's an extra tool in the toolbox, so to speak, for us," Ingham County Sheriff's Office Lt. Vern Elliott said.

The tool doesn't require officers to life a finger though.

"It runs by itself and basically what it does is it takes a picture of the license plate, and it checks for stolen plates," Lt. Elliott said.

The Automatic License Plate Readers record the data as officers drive - up to thousands of plates in one day - and it's entered into the National Crime Information Computer to compare against the "hot list" for stolen cars, outstanding warrants, and other crimes.

"As we're driving through parking lots, it can read plates in driveways as we drive by," Lt. Elliott said. "It's much easier, it's much quicker, and it stores the data a lot more easier than the old-fashioned way."

Some drivers would prefer the old fashioned way though.

"I think it's ridiculous," Brandon Packer said. "I don't think it's fair."

Police vehicles have three or four cameras installed that can read a plate no matter which direction a car is coming. Law experts say they understand why people are concerned, but law enforcement aren't violating the constitution.

"I have some concerns about the amount of data that's being stored," Cooley Law School Professor Patrick Corbett said. "Where are they going to store it, how are they going to use it? For the average American who's doing their best to get by, do you really want data stored on you? At the same time, isn't that the world we're in right now? The internet world with all sorts of data out there on us."

Police are still answering some of those questions themselves. Several local agencies don't have a strict set of guidelines for how much or how long data is stored. The Lansing Police Department has three automatic readers, but only in test phases until they figure out those issues.

"We won't release them or have our officers use them until we have a policy and procedure in place with the department," Lansing Police Officer Robert Merritt said.

Lansing police plan to get three more and have them all on the road sometime in September after all the officers go through training.

MSU Public Safety and the East Lansing Police Department use the devices as well.

Meridian Township Police say the automatic readers have helped them catch criminals, but there's still work to be done with the technology. They hope to get all the agencies together to discuss a set of procedures.

The American Civil Liberties Union has recommendations for how these devices should be used. Click the link below this story for more information.

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