License-plate database grows as cameras catch a few bad guys
It’s Pac-Man with a camera and a bottomless appetite, feasting on digits.
It doesn’t stop until it’s told to.
It won’t ask for permission — not that it needs your approval to do the job, its operators say.
Over the past two years in Grand Junction, roof-mounted license-plate readers — high-tech surveillance tools purchased by the Grand Junction Police Department but used by a coalition of Mesa County law enforcement agencies — have led to the recovery of a handful of stolen vehicles.
In doing so, records obtained by The Daily Sentinel show, the cameras also recorded information about many more non-law breakers. Between October 10, 2010, and Aug. 17 this year, automated license plate recognition systems read and recorded a total of 225,397 license plates on the roads of Grand Junction. That information is stored in a database maintained by a private vendor.
While privacy advocates criticize the systems for storing and failing to exclude the information of law-abiding drivers, police defend them as a lawful and potentially effective tool to fight crime.
“If we can solve one homicide case that might not have otherwise been solved, I think it pays for itself,” said Grand Junction Police Department Sgt. Stan Ancell, who also works with a multi-agency auto theft task force.
On a Thursday afternoon, Ancell spied the parking lot of the Rimrock Avenue Walmart, fishing for a different deal. He demonstrated the system for a reporter.
“The parking lots work very well,” he explained, slowly cruising the lot with cameras mounted on the right and left side of the car.
On an overtime basis, Ancell said, officers in Grand Junction are paid to work license-plate reader shifts, hitting “all the parking lots, hotels, motels ... anywhere that’s got a large population of cars.”
In less than two hours Thursday, 504 license plates were read and added to an ever-expanding database.
There were a dozen or so “hits” — all license plates which the system’s software matched up to known restrained driver’s licenses.
The readers, when on patrol, consist of infrared cameras that snap pictures of every vehicle they pass. Text-recognition software looks for reflective-type paint, similar to what you see on street signs. They sometimes capture unwanted information.
“It loves the side of our patrol cars where it says, ‘Protect and serve,’ ” Ancell said.
The camera snaps a photo of the license plate, while each photo is date- and time-stamped and the location is mapped with Global Positioning System accuracy. Each photo is recorded in a database maintained by Vigilant Solutions, the private vendor headquartered in Livermore, Calif., which sold the license plate reader equipment to Grand Junction in 2010.
Much of the investigative work is done for the officer.
On a daily basis, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation produces a “hot sheet,” a list of license plates associated with stolen vehicles which is uploaded to the license-plate readers, Ancell said. Most of the license plates are from Colorado, although they can include other states. The daily data upload includes information on insurance terminations, licenses with restraints or licenses associated with suspects wanted for major crimes locally or beyond.
“If you have a homicide in Denver and they have a suspect vehicle plate, we can go enter it manually into the reader,” Ancell said.
On Thursday, the “hot sheet” consisted of a little more than 254,000 license plate numbers.
When such a plate number is found by the reader, it alerts an officer in real time.
Ancell said the department has three units: one that’s hard-wired into a patrol vehicle and another two which can be mounted and removed on cars.
Big numbers, some crime
Records released by the City Attorney’s Office indicated they were purchased in a competitive bid process in 2010 at a cost of $53,205, tapping grant dollars made available by the Colorado Department of Public Safety and the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority. While Grand Junction purchased the equipment, it’s used by officers with the Western Colorado Auto Theft Task Force, which also includes officers and investigators with the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department, the Fruita Police Department and the Colorado State Patrol.
Records released by the city show that thousands of license plates are scanned and stored for every “hit” the systems produce in Grand Junction.
In 2011, the systems read 73,823 license plates. Of those, three of the plates were on stolen vehicles and recovered, while the systems identified six “other crimes.”
Over the first six months of this year, 39,155 license plates were read, resulting in the recovery of two stolen vehicles and the discovery of four other unspecified crimes.
Despite the low returns, the readers are worth it, Ancell argues.
“If we can recover five vehicles, at an average price of $9,000 to $10,000, that’s $50,000 to $60,000 worth of vehicles we get that we may not have without the system,” he said. “Then there’s always the ability to pick up people on the run or dangerous criminals.”
“That seems to be a lot of location information about innocent people in order to find one or two who might be doing something wrong,” Mark Silverstein, legal director of ACLU Colorado, said of Grand Junction’s license plate data.
ACLU Colorado has filed Open Records requests with police organizations across Colorado, seeking information about the systems used in Grand Junction and other agencies. ACLU affiliates in 38 states lodged similar requests in July and August. Last Tuesday, the organization filed a lawsuit in federal court asking a judge to force the U.S. Department of Justice and Homeland Security to turn over records related to the technology.
“These readers have the ability to amass a huge amount of data on where innocent people have been over a period of time,” Silverstein said. “How long is this data stored? What kind of limitations will be put on agencies that access that data? Who has access to it and for what purposes?”
Vigilant Solutions shares the data it gets from Grand Junction with other law enforcement agencies, while Grand Junction can access data pumped into the system by those other agencies. Vigilant Solutions did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Grand Junction police have yet to adopt formal policies or directives governing the use and maintenance of the data collected by the readers. “Frankly, the information in this database isn’t being used for anything ... we’re not going back and pulling histories unless it’s warranted,” said Ancell, who points to a Lakewood police investigation in which a sexual assault suspect was tied to roughly a dozen or so crimes, thanks largely to license-plate readers which placed his vehicle at certain locations and times.
Ancell noted officers can lawfully walk down a street and write down license plate numbers, while recording the time, date and location.
“All these systems are doing is taking a picture of it,” he said. “As a private citizen, when I drive I put my license plate out there for everyone to see and we don’t have an expectation of privacy. If the car’s in my garage, that’s another thing.”