License plate readers are important police tool, but hurdles remain, study finds

Jul 02, 2014

Systems that automatically read automobile license plates have the potential to save police investigative time and increase safety, but law enforcement officials must address issues related to staffing, compatibility and privacy before the technology can reach its full potential, according to a new RAND Corporation report.

As part of efforts to promote innovation in law enforcement, many of the first generation license plate reader systems were purchased with federal and state grants. As these funding streams can be inconsistent, law enforcement agencies are – or will be – forced to make tough decisions about how to maintain the systems.

Making those decisions will require a clear understanding of the current and potential value of the systems to criminal justice agencies, according to RAND researchers.

"License plate readers are a relatively new that can be used to help investigate almost any type of crime," said Keith Gierlack, the study's lead author and a researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "But there are important issues, particularly about privacy, that must be addressed before this tool can reach its full potential."

Because the systems retain information about every license plate read, privacy advocates say law could use license plate information to track movement of individuals, even if they are not suspects in a crime.

Key privacy issues facing local departments also include establishing standards about how long to keep information collected by license plate scanners, who in a department has access to the information and the types of investigations where the scanner information should be used, Gierlack said.

Some jurisdictions have adopted policies to retain data for set periods, such as six or 12 months. Legislation was introduced in California to regulate use of the license plate readers and legal decisions in New Hampshire, Maine and Virginia have restricted the technology. But no broadly accepted privacy guidelines have emerged to help guide police agencies that adopt the technology.

License plate readers are fixed or mobile cameras that capture an image of a passing vehicle, compare its license plate against official "hotlists" and alert authorities whether it may be of interest. Surveys have found that as many as 70 percent of local police agencies may be using the technology.

Promoted initially as a tool to assist in fighting auto thefts, the technology can be used in many additional ways that agencies only have begun to discover.

Researchers say information collected by the scanners can be used to help track down many kinds of offenders (helping collect infraction fees), and could be used to help identify both crime hotspots and crime trends. In addition, the technology could help test the alibis of criminal suspects and support efforts to combat drug cartels and terrorist groups.

RAND researchers conducted their study by reviewing past research on the technology and conducting in-depth reviews of seven police departments that have adopted the technology. They examined budgeting, manpower and maintenance issues, as well as how the technology is being used to aid police work. Both large and small were studied, as well as agencies located along international borders.

RAND researchers found that license plate readers provide the most utility to police if they have access to multiple hotlists and other databases of license plates of interest, including DMV data. The lack of access to some of these hotlists reduces the types of investigations license plate readers can aid. Additionally, mechanisms for sharing reader data between jurisdictions are not always available.

Explore further: Gov't cancels plan to collect license plate data

More information: The study, "License Plate Readers for Law Enforcement: Opportunities and Obstacles," can be found at http://www.rand.org.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Driving somewhere? There's a gov't record of that

Jul 17, 2013

(AP)—Chances are local or state police departments have photographs of individuals' cars in their files, noting where a person was driving on a particular day, even if the person never did anything wrong.

Privacy fears stoked by license plate readers

Sep 08, 2013

US police departments are rapidly expanding the use of automatic license plate readers, sparking debate on whether the technology is a valuable crime-fighting tool or a massive invasion of privacy.

Gov't cancels plan to collect license plate data

Feb 19, 2014

The Homeland Security Department has abruptly reversed course on plans to allow a private company to give it access to a nationwide database of license plate tracking information.

Ark. police photograph license plates, store data

Mar 02, 2013

(AP)—Little Rock may not be a likely terrorism target or a gang crime hotspot, but the Arkansas capital is following the example of high-security cities by expanding electronic surveillance of its streets.

Recommended for you

Japan orders air bag maker to conduct probe

Nov 21, 2014

Japan's transport ministry said Friday it has ordered air bag maker Takata to conduct an internal investigation after cases of its air bags exploding triggered safety concerns in the United States and other countries.

Senators get no clear answers on air bag safety

Nov 20, 2014

There were apologies and long-winded explanations, but after nearly four hours of testimony about exploding air bags, senators never got a clear answer to the question most people have: whether or not their ...

Winter-like temps can reduce tire pressure

Nov 19, 2014

The polar plunge that has chilled much of the nation does more than bring out ice scrapers and antifreeze. It can trigger vehicles' tire pressure monitoring systems overnight, sending nervous drivers to dealers ...

US: Gov't aircraft regulations apply to drones (Update)

Nov 18, 2014

The U.S. government has the power to hold drone operators accountable when they operate the remote-control aircraft recklessly, a federal safety board ruled Tuesday in a setback to small drone operators chafing ...

Mapping the crisis of displaced peoples

Nov 17, 2014

Population displacement is a global problem, one that historically has been insufficiently quantified and analyzed, especially given its wide-ranging effects. Displacement can result from a number of factors, ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.