Drive-by policing

By Sam Inglot
Illustration by L3 Mobile-Vision, the company that manufactures Automatic License Plate Readers

Lansing Police Department to purchase three additional Automatic License Plate Readers for use later this summer, raising privacy concerns

Later this summer, the Lansing Police Department will roll out Automatic License Plate Readers that will be used to find stolen vehicles, but a Lansing City Council candidate and the American Civil Liberties Union have privacy issues with the technology.

“There are a lot of patterns people have,” said Charles Hoffmeyer, a City Council candidate in the 2nd Ward. “Right now they don’t have a way to track you, but with this technology, it’s like the LPD will have a GPS on every citizen that drives a car.”

Hoffmeyer works full time for the Michigan State Police, where he works in the IT department that handles license plate and Law Enforcement Information Network information.

In early July, with help from a recent grant obtained by the city, LPD will be using six ALPRs in the field.

ALPRs are high-speed cameras that are attached to police cruisers. These cameras are able to capture license plate information from multiple angles, including from opposing traffic as it passes the police and from plates to the right of the cruiser, according to Interim Police Chief Mike Yankowski. When the camera snaps a photo, the computer system checks the plates to see if the vehicle is registered as stolen, he said. If the plate registers to a stolen car, the computer notifies the officer. Yankowski said the photo snapped by the ALPR is also logged into the computer system where it is stored for one year with the location, date and time of the photograph. After one year, the data is purged from the system.

Hoffmeyer is concerned because the data stored by the cameras would essentially allow the LPD to track motorists throughout the city. In his full-time job for the state police, Hoffmeyer helps distribute license plate and LEIN information, which Yankowski said would be used to double-check hits on the ALPRs.

“I think it’s wonderful technology for finding stolen cars, but the part that makes me nervous right now is how every license plate is plugged into the system,” he said. “One scan by itself doesn’t mean much, but as more are installed, the LPD is going to have a pretty good picture of your movements around the city, and that makes me very uncomfortable.”

Police cruisers are not just confined to the roads, Hoffmeyer said. They move through parking lots as well. His concern is that data could be collected on people’s whereabouts at sensitive places like churches, health clinics and counseling offices.

In July 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union posted a statement on its website about the use of ALPRs. The organization has very similar concerns to that of Hoffmeyer.

“As license plate location data accumulates, the system ceases to be simply a mechanism enabling efficient police work and becomes a warrantless tracking tool, enabling retroactive surveillance of millions of people,” the statement says.

At its meeting Monday, the City Council unanimously approved a resolution that authorized a $6,160 local match of a grant that would allow the LPD to purchase three more ALPRs in addition to the three they’ve been testing but not using in the field.

Yankowski said the ALPRs would primarily be used to track down stolen vehicles, but could be expanded later to include wanted or missing persons’ plate numbers. He said all of the information captured by the ALPRs would be shared with the county, Michigan State University, East Lansing and Meridian Township police departments.

LPD Spokesman Robert Merritt said the department received 306 stolen vehicle reports in 2012.

Hoffmeyer also has concerns about officers’ misusing the ALPR system. With the technology being new to the department, he questioned what policies would be in place to prevent abuse of the system.

Yankowski said policies are being developed, but that the ALPR policy would probably “mirror” the policies regarding use of the LEIN system.

“Anytime someone runs something through the computer, it gets documented, including who used it,” he said. “There would be an audit trail as to who utilized the system at that point in time. If anyone violated those policies and procedures, they would be held accountable.”

Council President Carol Wood said after receiving Hoffmeyer’s letters and hearing more information from Yankowski addressing his concerns, she’s confident the system will be used appropriately.

“I guess it’s no different than anything else, whether we’re talking about the cameras that were implemented in the city, or this technology, it’s important to make sure it is used appropriately and there are enough safeguards in place,” she said. “At this point, I felt confident with the answers that were given to us.”