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WKYT Investigates | How do license plate readers work?

Lexington is expected to install 25 license plate reading cameras in April.
WKYT Investigates | How do license plate readers work?
Published: Mar. 17, 2022 at 1:54 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - This week Lexington council members learned more about the police department’s policies and procedures for using license plate reading cameras, or LPRs.

Next month, officials will install 25 LPRs in locations around the city as part of a national pilot program to study the effect of those cameras on crime across the country.

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Several communities in western Kentucky - including Owensboro, Madisonville, Hopkinsville and Middleton - already use the cameras, according to police. But the devices are even more common in parts of Indiana, where dozens of local agencies in the Indianapolis area alone have already been using them.

As part of Lexington’s participation in a study on the camera’s effectiveness, the city will received 25 LPRs free for one year (a value of $68,750, including installation, according to the contract) in exchange for sharing general crime data and participating in a monthly call.

How do investigators use the cameras?

Just to the east of Indianapolis in Hancock County, Indiana, the sheriff’s office has been using license plate reading cameras from Flock Safety - the same company Lexington is getting its cameras from - since December 2020.

“I believe it’s up to close to 1,000 cases now where Flock has played some kind of a vital role in solving that case,” Capt. Robert Harris, Law Enforcement Division Commander with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer. “Whether that be giving us travel patterns for a suspect or identifying a vehicle, in some way, shape or form that has helped.”

It has also helped in about 100 “live” cases, he said, in which a license plate hit allowed deputies to track a suspect to a location to make an arrest after they received an alert from the system.

The sheriff’s office has 22 cameras at the moment, but its investigators have access to roughly 350 cameras around the region from sharing with other law enforcement agencies in the area.

“We are constantly looking for ways to find these force multipliers that help us solve more crimes or retrieve more information without burdening the taxpayer with paying for more officers,” said Capt. Harris. “Budgets are tight all over the place, and it’s harder to find people now, so these Flock cameras seem to be a great way to track suspects and hopefully get more leads without having more boots on the ground, so to speak.”

Investigators say the Flock cameras are part of their daily workflow now. They have used them for:

  • locating burglary suspects
  • finding missing persons
  • apprehending people with high-level warrants
  • recovering several stolen vehicles and stolen property
  • tracking a man wanted - and now convicted - of attempted murder.

What does the system track?

In the course of investigations, officials say they can look up a particular plate number in the system and even set alerts for when it shows up by adding it to a “hot list.” They can also search for cars in certain areas at certain times that may match suspect vehicle descriptions.

As a test, Capt. Harris tried to find the WKYT vehicle on its drive in from Lexington. It showed up on a camera just about a mile south of downtown Greenfield, where the sheriff’s department is located, identifying the vehicle by license plate number, state, make, color and car type (SUV).

Flock cameras take multiple pictures of the plates and check them against the hot list of plates being looked for; any further investigating or checking other databases has to be done separately by officers, Capt. Harris said. (License plates are even legible in nighttime photos.)

Lexington’s cameras are not to be used for enforcement of speeding or red lights, according to a presentation Lexington Assistant Police Chief Eric Lowe gave at a council work session on Tuesday. Officers must put in a reason for their search for auditing purposes. Data is retained for 30 days before it is automatically deleted.

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In Hancock County, Indiana, the sheriff’s department decided to place its cameras along the inbound routes on the western side of their county - “Any traffic coming into our county from Indianapolis, we’re capturing a picture of their vehicle and their license plate,” Harris said - because most of their crime comes into the country from the Indianapolis area, he said.

“We’ve already seen the effect of this because the criminals know we have cameras on the west side of our county like a big fence,” he said. “So we’ve seen them take alternate routes and go through other counties to go other ways to try to avoid the cameras.”

(He said not only are they working to close that fence by adding more cameras, but having access to neighboring communities’ cameras also helps address this.)

Lexington Police have not released the locations of its cameras, but has said the sites will be based on “violent crime patterns.”

What are some concerns about LPRs?

Location of the cameras was a main concern of the NAACP, ACLU and Human Rights Commission, police said. Department leaders sought feedback from those groups and worked to address their concerns by incorporating their suggestions into the final policy.

A spokesperson for the ACLU of Kentucky told WKYT Investigates that they also had concerns about data storage and data usage.

“Is people’s information secure if they’re in a public space being documented by the police? There are concerns with how that data is used,” said Samuel Crankshaw of the ACLU of Kentucky. “There’s also concerns with the placement because there’s proof that communities of color are traditionally over-policed, and are these cameras going to be part of that or could they be used in another way?”

Additionally, ACLU officials recommended the police department set clear goals and benchmarks that would help determine the success of the pilot program to help determine whether or not to continue with the cameras moving forward.

As more communities in the commonwealth adopt the use of LPRs, the ACLU wants state lawmakers to adopt minimum standards to regulate them. Crankshaw said the organization is concerned that, while they believe Lexington has some appropriate safeguards in place, other communities that adopt the cameras may not.

MORE | Flock Safety FAQ

At least 16 states have laws on the books expressly regulating license plate readers and data retention, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Kentucky - like Indiana - does not.

In Indiana, where more communities are already using LPRs, it is unclear whether the concerns in theory have turned into complaints in practice. The ACLU of Indiana would not share whether it has received any legal complaints or documented any problems about the use of the cameras.

(Instead, a spokesperson provided a general statement: “The increasing use of surveillance technologies by local police across America, especially against communities of color and other unjustly targeted groups, has been creating oppressive and stigmatizing environments in which every community member is treated like an enemy of the state or a prospective criminal. A lack of public data and transparency has left some Indiana communities in the dark about how license plate readers are being implemented and what information is being collected, stored and used. When these tools are implemented, law enforcement agency policies should be transparent and adhere to strict privacy principles.”)

Yet it is clear that the legal landscape surrounding such cameras is still evolving. An Indiana law publication notes that court rulings are still examining “not only the [Fourth Amendment] constitutional implications of these devices but also the amount of suspicion that would be sufficient for an officer to make a traffic stop based on data from a reader.”

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