It should come as no surprise that Oregon Police Department chief Brian Uhl values safety.
An improvement on that, for both officers and the community, is what he considers the main benefit of automated license plate readers, or ALPR. These vehicle-mounted devices scan and read license plates on vehicles surrounding squad cars when officers drive through town.
Uhl told the Observer the system, which OPD began using on a single squad car in June, helps alleviate some of the pressure on police officers who use it, as it scans all vehicles, removing an officer’s choice of which plates to tag.
In use already for several years in several Dane County suburbs, as well as Milwaukee, ALPR has been the source of some debate in the past decade. Critics say the lack of regulations on the storage of driver information could violate individual’s privacy.
ALPR photographs license plates and logs time and location information while checking the plates against a list of vehicles that have been flagged by authorities. Oregon’s ALPR is connected to a database that includes Middleton, Fitchburg, Sun Prairie, Verona, Monona and the Dane County system, with a possibility of connecting to Milwaukee in the future.
Uhl said the connection to other communities gives a bigger pool of information if they or other jurisdictions are searching for someone who committed a crime.
“A lot of times they go to other jurisdictions because they’re not known there and do a crime and leave, it makes it more difficult to solve,” he said. “With this technology, we’re able to track that and our officers might not even know that the vehicle is on a hot sheet somewhere.”
The plate reader will alert an officer to a variety of issues, including expired registration or the vehicle having been reported as stolen. Officers need to verify that information before they can stop a vehicle, Uhl said.
“The biggest benefit to the community is it helps us track individuals who are committing crime,” Uhl told the Observer. “With all of these car break-ins and garage entries that lead to home entries, it helps us coordinate with other agencies and solve these crimes.”
Uhl said the plate being scanned automatically helps avoid profiling while also improving the safety of officers who no longer have to manually enter plates while driving and making them more efficient.
“It’s able to point out things they wouldn’t be able to see,” he said.
Lack of regulation
The potential for misuse of ALPR, including privacy violations, has inspired calls for more regulation.
The Milwaukee Police Department began using the technology in 2008, with Sun Prairie, Middleton, Fitchburg and Verona following shortly after, and in 2013, bipartisan legislation was introduced to would have established clear guidelines on how that information can be used and stored. The American Civil Liberties Union has also called for national standards regulating the use of ALPR and the records it generates.
While the Wisconsin legislation did not advance, in 2015, Milwaukee installed a policy regulating the use of the readers and the storage of data, explaining that law enforcement officials are the only people to have access to the information and it can only be accessed for use in pertinent investigations, at the threat of criminal, civil and administrative sanctions if is abused.
In Oregon, information is stored for a varying amount of time, Uhl said, but the scanned information, as well as pictures of the license and sometimes the driver, is not accessible by the public. He said the only time that information would be shared is if it is somehow involved in a crime.
The ALPR system is installed on one vehicle, a front-line squad car that’s in use most of the day.
It cost around $20,000 to install, funded through donations, and Uhl said there are no plans for the department to purchase more because it’s not in the budget.
He said officers started using the software earlier this month and feedback has already been “fantastic.”
One benefit has been to take away the choices that lead to profiling.
“People can’t say we’re targeting them based on the condition of their vehicle or the color of their skin, it removes that bias,” Uhl said.
It has also helped officers pick up on things that might have otherwise been missed, such as catching drunk drivers, he said.
“If you work in law enforcement, you know that when you stop a vehicle for expired registration or suspended plates, often times it leads to other things,” he said.