The license plate reader resembles two small security cameras sitting on the back of a police car. The reader is hooked up to an officer’s laptop and can detect the figures on a license plate regardless of which car is in motion, either the police car or the vehicle being checked. If the police car is stationary, the other vehicle’s plate can be read even if it’s traveling as fast as 120 mph.
Oxford police Chief Bill Partridge described the technology employed by his department for the last three weeks as “an extra means of finding the bad guy.”
Each morning, officers download the latest database from the National Crime Information Center into the license plate reader. The NCIC database allows access to lists of stolen vehicles, stolen tags, missing persons and homicide suspects nationwide. Partridge said Oxford police can also add local suspects and cases into the system for any type of crime. In the last few weeks, Oxford police have caught several theft suspects and a stolen vehicle tag using the license plate reader, the chief said.
But another means of tracking a person’s whereabouts and potentially storing what time someone frequents his favorite coffee shop has some privacy advocates concerned.
Susan Watson, executive director of the Alabama chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she believes license plate readers are an invasion of privacy.
“They’re becoming a tool for mass location and tracking surveillance. We think they’re a problem,” Watson said.
Watson said the ACLU has discovered law enforcement agencies across the country have routinely collected and stored information generated by license plate readers.
Partridge was familiar with the worry that using the readers allows police to know where a person is at any given moment.
“We do not retain any information. We don’t store anything that’s recorded. At the end of the shift it’s wiped out,” he said.
Watson believes questions about the license plate readers haven’t been raised by many Americans because most people don’t know about the technology.
“They’re so obscure and people don’t think the government will be recording their license plate number at every turn,” Watson said. “People don’t realize they’re being tracked.”
Watson said she commended Partridge for not storing information. She said she thinks license plate readers can be used as a legitimate tool under the right circumstances.
Oxford is one of four police departments in Alabama using Pannin Technologies’ license plate readers, according to Bryan Ritter, director of the company. Ritter said it’s his policy not to release the names of other police departments using license plate readers incase police have not made that information public.
Ritter said the technology has gained popularity in the last five years and is widely used by police departments in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. A dual system, like the one used by Oxford, which has two cameras and can read plates passed on the left and right of a police car, costs $14,000, Ritter said. A single-camera system costs $9,500.
Ritter said the length of time license plate information is stored depends upon each police department.
“Some dump it immediately. Some save it 150 days. Some departments save it indefinitely,” Ritter said.
Ritter said he’s heard criticism concerning police saving data, but said the license plate reader could allow police to pinpoint a suspect’s habits and decrease man-hours spent searching for someone.
“It saves taxpayer money. That’s what people need to focus on, catching these people,” Ritter said.
Pannin Technologies also has a secure server police departments can use to store data, he said.
Anniston police Chief Shane Denham said his department has considered purchasing license plate readers, but decided they were too expensive.
Partridge said in the future he hopes all 30 of Oxford’s police cars will be equipped with the readers.
“It affords the officer to be able to multitask. It makes the officer’s job easier and it makes the bad guy’s job harder,” Partridge said.
Staff Writer Rachael Brown: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @RBrown_Star.