Gallatin, TN - Sumner County law enforcement officials are using high-tech cameras to create a detailed picture of the whereabouts of thousands of cars, regardless of whether they are suspected of any link to criminal activity.
Police say that this ability to capture license plates is among the most powerful new crime-fighting tools at their disposal, and that it has already led them directly to vehicles used in crimes.
It’s also a type of government surveillance — spreading quickly, thanks to federal grants — that has raised privacy concerns across the country and pushed police departments to consider how the cameras and records should be used.
A computer inside the car checks the nearby license plates against various crime databases, including wanted suspects, stolen vehicles and sex offenders. It can also check for tax dodgers. If the computer finds a match, a beep alerts the officer.
But that’s just the start for a rapidly expanding program.
Police see far more potential in a related map database that catches all of the scanned license plates in Gallatin, Hendersonville and Sumner County, even those that didn’t match the criminal lists. With that map, a detective can type in a license plate number seen at a crime scene — or even just a partial tag — and search for places where it has been spotted by cameras.
According to the company behind the systems, PIPS Technology in Knoxville, a majority of reader system sales are now for fixed locations. The opposite was true when the company launched in 2005, when 90 percent of systems were attached to police cruisers, said Bryan Sturgill, company sales specialist.
Each system costs between $9,000 and $15,000. Officials in Sumner County who are overseeing the $125,000 Department of Homeland Security grant paying for the cameras said they’ll get as many as their money can buy.
Vanderbilt University law professor Christopher Slobogin, said “the government has a lot more power that it can abuse.”
“The avowed purpose is to catch people, but (police) could use the information for other purposes,” he said.
Courts are starting to show reluctance toward allowing governments to continue increasing surveillance. Slobogin said gathering of information on people who haven’t done anything wrong could lead to further challenges.
“We are seeing more and more government dragnet operations,” he said.
Other cities also have had to figure out whether their databases are publicly available, which could open up the program to further misuse. In Connecticut, a group of 10 towns that shared their records were forced to give the American Civil Liberties Union three year’s worth of records, totaling 3.1 million scans, after a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
Once the database goes public, police department restrictions about who can search through it lose their meaning, opening possibilities for commercial ventures, and also for anyone who might be looking to find where someone shops each day or parks each night.
License plate tracking spreads beyond criminal suspects.
From Tennessee to the District of Columbia, police
are using mobile and stationary surveillance cameras to collect and store
license plates of residents who have committed no crime—so that they can be
found if they ever do.
In Tennessee, police utilize cameras mounted atop
patrol cars that can capture thousands of license numbers each day. The
information is then loaded into an ever-expanding database, which can help
officers locate a vehicle in the event its owner is suspected of criminal
behavior. The program is now expanding to include stationary cameras mounted
next to busy roads.
“I’m sure that there’s going to be people out
there that say this is an invasion of privacy,” Detective James Kemp of
Gallatin County told The Tennessean. But “the possibilities are endless
there for solving crimes. It’s just a multitude of information out there—to not
tap into it to better protect your citizens, that’s ludicrous.”
In Washington D.C., local police make use of 250
cameras set up around the city that can capture license plates. Last year they
claimed that the cameras led to an average of one arrest a day. DC reportedly
has the highest concentration of cameras per square mile in the United States
for spotting criminals on the move or just ordinary citizens going about their
Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the
American Civil Liberties Union’s technology and liberty program, expressed
concern over D.C.’s “large database of innocent people’s comings and goings.”
He told The Washington Post: “The government has no business collecting
that kind of information on people without a warrant.”