Speed cameras, stoplight cameras, license plate readers: Even when they’re not looking, Montgomery County Police are watching.
Now, nearly a decade after county police deployed their first cruiser-mounted cameras capable of reading 100 license plates per second, the department is nearing its first written policy for a tool that can track down anyone from a fugitive to a car thief to a missing person — and that police are increasingly appreciating for its potential to break open major criminal investigations.
One-third of large police departments use license plate readers, according to county analysts, as police departments across the country turn more and more to computerized surveillance systems as “force multipliers” in fighting crime. License plate readers have stirred the most controversy over the handling of the massive amounts of information they feed into a central police database.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland says the data should be erased after 24 hours for anyone not sought in an investigation, according to The Gazette.
Montgomery County Police are heading toward a two-tiered approach, police officials told the County Council’s Public Safety Committee on March 29:
- Retain the information for one year in an LPR-specific database that can be accessed only by specially trained officers.
- After a year, archive the data off-line, with access granted only by the Chief of Police.
“We believe it is not responsible … to just do away with the information,” said Asst. Chief Russ Hamill, head of the Investigative Service Bureau. “If we just dump this information … 30 years from now, 25 years from now, the people that are going to be sitting in all our chairs, are they going to look to us as really committing a major folly?”
That policy is taking shape as part of an effort shared by several police departments via the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. COG’s public safety committee meets later this month to finalize the details.
Cruisers equipped with electronic license plate readers have a pair of cameras mounted on both sides of the vehicle and linked to the in-cruiser computer.
Scanning one lane to the right and two lanes to the left, the cameras process upwards of 100 license plates per second, giving the officer instantaneous feedback, said Sgt. Alan Felsen of the MCPD technology division.
As long as the computer is on, the LPR “reads everything that goes in front of that camera,” Felsen said.
Just as a vast ring of license plate readers encircles New York City, police departments in and around Washington are following suit.
D.C. police have 73 license plate readers, according to the Washington Post. Montgomery County’s municipal police departments keep their own arsenal of LPRs, according to The Gazette: Gaithersburg has five, Rockville and Takoma Park have three each, and Chevy Chase has two. The Maryland Transportation Authority uses license plate readers to watch over the Intercounty Connector, and state troopers plan to deploy them on Interstate 270 “sometime in the near future,” Hamill said.
The 22 units run by Montgomery County Police are deployed thusly:
- 16 are spread among the county’s six district stations
- 3 are with specialized Police Community Action Teams
- 1 for the auto theft division
- 1 in the police technology division
- 1 mobile trailer
MCPD landed their first two units in 2004, and used them almost exclusively to spot stolen cars. Both units have since shut down.
In November 2010, MCPD picked up 19 more from the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security. Because of “software issues,” police weren’t able to fully deploy the units and start storing their data until March 2011, Hamill said. Gov. Martin O’Malley provided two more in June. MCPD added a mobile trailer in September.
In the year since the program has run “full bore,” county police recovered 53 stolen cars and found nine fugitives, Hamill said. He also gave a snapshot of one officer who ran a license plate reader for 96 hours over 27 days:
- 48,101 tags scanned
- 255 traffic citations
- 26 suspended licenses
- 16 vehicle emission violators
- 4 stolen tags
- 3 arrests
- 1 expired tag
“It’s using technology to work smarter and harder,” said Capt. Thomas Didone, head of the MCPD traffic division. “Investment in the investigative side is a long-term one … but right now, it’s a great traffic tool.”
It is that investigative potential in which license plate readers could have their greatest impact.
They’ve already been deployed during manhunts. And by mining the LPR data for criminal investigations, police can create a pool of suspects simply by identifying vehicles that were in certain places at certain times.
The Beltway Sniper is a prime example of license plate readers’ potential, Hamill said, an investigation in which police started with no witnesses and had no inkling of who they were looking for.
“If we had this technology then, we could have forestalled the future murders that occurred,” Hamill said. “… They were way ahead of us for three weeks. I think if this technology was there, we could have identified them a lot faster.”
Though the wording of Montgomery County’s policy on license plate readers remains unsettled, police are steadfast that under no circumstances should the data be sold commercially or shared with other government agencies for non-criminal investigations.
Some police agencies have turned a profit by passing the data on to private entities, and Hammill referenced a police department that was asked by their jurisdiction’s revenue authority to use the data to help collect taxes.
“I have severe, deep concerns about that. I don’t think it’s ethical. I don’t think we belong in the business of selling information in law enforcement. I know it can be attractive to settle budgets … but we would never entertain that," Hamill said. “... If we’re going to have these out here and we’re saying they’re for law enforcement use only, we have to stay to that policy. As attractive as it may be for other avenues within the government and also within the private sector, I believe we have to guard this very carefully and not do so.”
Councilman Marc Elrich raised concerns about profiling and asked how the policy can be crafted to ensure the data won’t be used in questionable investigations. He pointed to the example of _ Maryland State Police systematically spying on anti-war groups_ in 2005 and 2006, and his own experience at a rally at Montgomery Blair High School in 2006 where police photographed and videotaped the demonstrators.
“I go to a meeting; how do I know you’re not recording all the license plates to know who attended the meeting?” said Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park.
Misuse of license plate readers would only give rise to the sort of public backlash and court rulings and that would compel police to curtail the program, Hammill said.
“To a degree, you have to trust us on what we say we’re going to use it for. We’re not going to use it for those types of cases,” Hamill said. “… It would be beyond irresponsible to jeopardize the program for something of that nature. … I can tell you as long as I’m here doing this, that will not happen.”
With those safeguards in place, Councilman Phil Andrews—chairman of the public safety committee—believes the policy taking shape is “sound” and strikes a “good balance” between empowering law enforcement without trampling civil liberties.
“The camera never blinks, so it’s non-discriminatory,” Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg said. “The bottom line is that it’s a major advance in technology that is a huge help in crime-fighting, and it maximizes productivity of the police department. … Now, police officers can focus on things only they can do.”