FORT WAYNE — While on patrol at the state fairgrounds a few years ago, 1st Sgt. Brian Olehy of the Indiana State Police listened as continual dings sounded off in his squad car.
Every parked car or truck he passed created another alert: ding … ding … ding.
Mounted on the outside of Olehy’s car were cameras and sensors called automatic license plate readers, and each ding meant they had scanned the license plate of a vehicle he passed.
In turn, these readers stored that information in a database and then cross-checked it against a database of license plates belonging to reported stolen vehicles.
“They’re a very useful tool, specifically for stolen vehicles,” said Olehy, who added that the dings would’ve turned to a different sound if he had actually found a stolen vehicle.
Automatic license plate readers are becoming more and more popular with law enforcement agencies, and in May there will be a set of them deployed on two Fort Wayne police squad cars.
Law enforcement officials say they not only help in finding stolen vehicles but can also quickly find license plates registered to suspended drivers, those who owe money on parking tickets or those involved in an Amber Alert situation.
The technology can also possibly locate a vehicle involved in more serious crimes, like robberies or homicides, police say.
But some critics say the plate readers can be abused and question what police are doing with the voluminous data the readers record daily.
The American Civil Liberties Union specifically questions whether police will use the readers to track law-abiding citizens who are going about their day, having their location recorded without their knowledge.
“Law enforcement can use license plate readers as a legitimate tool,” said Allie Bohm, advocacy and policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. “But the systems in many places are collecting and storing license and location information of not just people suspected of crimes, but everyone.
“They’re surveilling people not suspected of a crime,” she added.
Fort Wayne Police Chief Rusty York said his department is receiving automatic license plate readers for two cars as part of a $56,000 government grant.
Each car will be equipped with four cameras, which will allow license plates to be read from all sides of the vehicle, York said.
The system is able to read thousands of plates a day, whether the vehicles are parked or moving.
“You know, it’s one of those things where I think our department is far ahead of the game as far as technology, but this is one thing we don’t have,” York said.
The Indiana State Police currently has three cars in the state equipped with the technology but none in the Fort Wayne area, according to Olehy, who is based in Indianapolis.
Olehy said his department uses the scanners to look not only for stolen vehicles, but also freight trucks on the highways that might belong to companies with unpaid taxes.
York touted similar advantages the technology offers police, while also allowing officers to easily run a license plate without having to type it into a computer or call it into dispatch while driving.
According to York, an officer with the technology can update the system’s database daily. An officer can also set the parameters of what the system will look for, such as stolen cars or suspended drivers.
But York also envisions the technology helping in serious crimes like homicides.
If a witness at a homicide saw a vehicle leaving the scene and happened to remember or write down the license plate number, police could theoretically comb through data collected by the automatic license plate readers to see if that car was spotted at any other place on any particular day.
For instance, if the readers recorded that car parked in front of a specific house or apartment weeks before the homicide, then that could be where the owner of the car lives.
But the very fact a police department could gather that type of information – where a car was parked weeks ago – is partially the crux of the ACLU’s caution about these devices.
“What you are getting is a map of where everyone who happens to pass one of these things has been at a given time,” the ACLU’s Bohm said. “You could be at a reproductive clinic, or a gay bar or a fundamentalist church. Because police are storing the information for years, they’re going to get patterns about where you’re going regularly.”
Eighty-five percent of law enforcement departments in the United States will have automatic license plate readers within the next five years, according to a report by the Police Executive Research Forum.
Most departments that have the devices in a limited number – like Fort Wayne police will have in May – plan to expand their programs as the price for the technology drops, the report said.
York said he hopes to equip more cars in the future, as well, but he did not know how much information would be stored by his department’s devices or how long that information would be kept.
“I’m sure there are some model policies out there that we’ll look at from other departments,” he said. “I can’t say how long that archive will last. For it to be useful, it’s going to have to be there for a while.”
Last July, the ACLU sent 587 public information requests to local police departments and state agencies in 38 states and Washington, D.C. The organization wants to see how law enforcement is storing the data, how long that information is stored and how the information is being used by the department, Bohm said.
So far, those requests – none of which involved an Indiana department – are pending.
“These can be useful, but they need to be used in a way to protect people’s privacy,” Bohm said.
“Something needs to be put in place so that they’re being used for legitimate reasons, and not simply stockpiling information.”