Blount County, Alcoa, Maryville and Tennessee Highway Patrol use license plate recognition (LPR) tech
By Wes Wade | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Blount County authorities are among a growing number of police departments across the nation adopting the use of license plate recognition (LPR) systems that automatically scan vehicles traveling in the vicinity of a police cruiser equipped with the device.
The Blount County Sheriff’s Office and the Alcoa and Maryville police departments all use LPRs, as does the Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP). The technology is completely automated and captures images of vehicles and license plates while a law enforcement officer is on patrol in an effort to identify stolen vehicles, missing persons or violations such as those driving on a suspended or revoked license.
The Sheriff’s Office currently has three vehicles equipped with the devices and has been using them for the past two years. Sheriff’ Office spokeswoman Marian O’Briant said all three LPRs are assigned to patrol units.
The Alcoa Police Department has one license plate reader, said Alcoa Police Captain Phillip Dunn, and has been using the device for about three years. Maryville Police Chief Tony Crisp the Maryville Police Department only recently acquired a reader and has been using it for about a month.
Area law enforcement authorities were not able to immediately provide information on how many plates the devices read in any given time period, but THP spokeswoman Dalya Qualls said 48 troopers across the state are currently equipped with the devices and have the ability to scan up to 5,000 license plates per shift. THP started using the technology in 2010 and started out with just eight devices.
While Qualls said THP does not keep track of how many stops are made based on LPR hits, traffic stops made based on LPR scans must not only comply with the procedures used in routine traffic stops, the violation must first be verified by troopers.
Not tracking citizens
The topic of LPR use was detailed this past week in several media reports after a study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union found that the devices are being used to capture millions of license plates across the nation.
While many reports focused on the fact that this technology makes it easier for law enforcement agencies to track the comings and goings of citizens, Capt. Dunn said his department is not keeping tabs on area residents.
“We won’t be doing tracking,” Dunn said. “There’s no justification for doing that.”
He explained that the information stays on a server and is only accessed if and when it may pertain to an investigation. All area agencies have their own servers for uploading tag information obtained through LPRs, but there area also agreements in place to share information. Dunn said it is his understanding that the state has plans to look at possibly expanding the information to be dispersed through a central sharing system.
Chief Crisp used a hit-and-run incident involving a school bus about a year ago as an example of this collaboration. While the Maryville Police Department did not yet have an LPR, they were able to ask the Sheriff’s Office for help.
Maryville Police had a partial tag to go on and also knew what kind of vehicle they were looking for. The Sheriff’s Office had in fact captured two images of a vehicle and plate traveling on U.S. 411 South which matched the information given to authorities.
Maryville Police then went to the Madisonville home of the registered owner and found that the vehicle had not only sustained damage, but that damage was consistent with the hit-and-run incident. After interviewing the car’s owner, he admitted to fleeing the scene, Crisp said.
Marian O’Briant said the Sheriff’s Office has been able to solve three larger cases thanks to the LPRs, but that the department does not currently have plans in the immediate future to obtain any more readers
Chief Crisp said the Maryville Police Department will be looking into acquiring another LPR possibly at the end of the year or beginning of next year. The Alcoa Police Department has already had another LPR approved in their budget for this year, Captain Dunn said.
Dunn said that while the LPRs are useful to law enforcement agencies, they have to be used correctly. He said authorities have to be careful not to abuse the technology.
“It’s a good tool,” Dunn said. “But we’ve got to be careful from a law enforcement standpoint not to abuse it. Every good thing can be used for the wrong reasons.”
He added that he is aware that many citizens are apprehensive about the use of such devices, but said he is not aware of many documented abuses of the technology. Dunn explained that his department employs several tight controls to ensure proper use of the devices and to prevent abuse. He also said all data collected at his department is stored on their server indefinitely.
While the devices are always on — always scanning vehicles while an officer is an patrol— Dunn said officers are not sitting in their vehicles watching the results being captured by the LPRs. He said if a hit comes back on a stolen vehicle, missing person, or a violation such as someone driving on a suspended ore revoked license, the officer will investigate. And there are is always the possibility of a false alert, as the readers only gather numbers, not information on the state where the plate was issued, Dunn said.
Chief Crisp said the Maryville Police Department has developed a written policy on the proper use of LPRs, but since the technology is so new to the department, they have not yet had time to address how long information gathered through LPRs should be stored.
“That is something we’ll address,” Crisp said. “We’re so new into it that we just haven’t crossed that (issue) entirely at this time.”
Acquiring and installing an LPR in a patrol unit costs about $20,000, based on information provided by all agencies interviewed.