CHELSEA — The high-speed cameras mounted on Sergeant Robert Griffin’s cruiser trigger a beeping alarm every time they read another license plate, automatically checking to see if each car is unregistered, uninsured, or stolen. In a single hour of near-constant beeps, Griffin runs 786 plates on parked cars without lifting a finger.
The plate-reading cameras were introduced for police use in Massachusetts in 2008, and quickly proved their worth. The one on Griffin’s Chelsea cruiser repaid its $24,000 price tag in its first 11 days on the road. “We located more uninsured vehicles in our first month . . . using [the camera] in one cruiser than the entire department did the whole year before,” said Griffin.
Now, automated license plate recognition technology’s popularity is exploding — seven Boston area police departments will add a combined 21 new license readers during the next month alone — and with that expanded use has come debate on whether the privacy of law-abiding citizens is being violated.
These high-tech license readers, now mounted on 87 police cruisers statewide, scan literally millions of license plates in Massachusetts each year, checking not only the car and owner’s legal history, but also creating a precise record of where each vehicle was at a given moment.
The records can be enormously helpful in solving crimes — for example, Fitchburg police used the technology to catch a serial flasher — but they increasingly make privacy advocates uneasy.
Use of the technology is outstripping creation of rules to prevent abuses such as tracking the movements of private citizens, or monitoring who visits sensitive places such as strip clubs, union halls, or abortion clinics.
A survey of police departments that use automated license readers found that fewer than a third — just 17 out of 53 — have written policies, leaving the rest with no formal standards for who can see the records or how long they will be preserved.
“The worst-case scenario — vast databases with records of movements of massive numbers of people — is already happening,” warns Kade Crockford of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which is pushing for a state law to regulate use of license plate scanners and limit the time departments can routinely keep the electronic records to 48 hours.
But police fear that zeal to protect privacy could stifle the use of a promising law enforcement tool, especially if they are prevented from preserving and pooling license plate scans for use in detective work. Currently, all of the police departments keep their plate scans longer than two days, with data storage ranging from 14 days in Somerville and Brookline to 90 days in Boston and up to a year in Leicester, Malden, Pittsfield, and Worcester.
Sergeant Griffin, whose own department has no written policy, agrees that there should be rules to prevent abuse, but thinks that these should be set by local departments rather than at the State House. He said that rather than restrict use of the scanners, the Legislature should “trust law enforcement to do the right thing.”
The usefulness of the automated license plate reader as an investigative tool springs from the astounding number of license plates the units can scan and record. With an array of high-speed cameras mounted on police cruisers snapping pictures, these systems are designed to capture up to 1,800 plates per minute, even at high speeds and in difficult driving conditions.
“I’ve had my [license plater reader] correctly scan plates on cars parked bumper-to-bumper when I’m driving full speed,” said Griffin, who caught three scofflaws owing a combined $1,900 in parking tickets from the 786 license plates his reader checked on a recent one-hour patrol. The devices misidentify plates often enough that scans have to be confirmed by an officer on the scene before writing a ticket. In this case, after confirming the parking tickets, and the money owed, police initiated the collection process. Griffin called headquarters to confirm that the vehicles still had unpaid tickets, and then arranged for them to be towed.
Boston’s four scanner-equipped cars do 3,500 scans a day and more than 1 million per year, according to police data. Even smaller departments such as Fitchburg scan 30,000 plates per month with just one license-reading system, easily 10 times more than an officer could manually check.
Most of the departments that deploy license plate readers use them primarily for traffic enforcement. But the scanners — sometimes called by the acronym ALPR — are also used for missing persons, AMBER alerts, active warrants, and open cases.Continued...