Local police not part of U.S. license plate database trend

Becky Campbell • Jul 20, 2013 at 8:45 PM

While a study released by the American Civil Liberties Union last week revealed a growing number of law enforcement agencies are gathering data from license plates by using automatic reader technology, departments in Upper Northeast Tennessee have chosen to not use the equipment.

Only the Tennessee Highway Patrol in this region has vehicles equipped with the technology.

The Johnson City Police Department, Washington County Sheriff’s Office, Kingsport Police Department and Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office all said they do not use the equipment.

On the state level, 48 THP vehicles have the equipment, according to Dalya Qualls, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Safety.

“The Tennessee Highway Patrol currently has 48 mobile license plate readers in patrol units across the state. We have been using the LPR technology since 2010,” she said.

There are five patrol units in the Fall Branch District, which includes Washington and Sullivan counties, with the equipment, she said.

Qualls said the technology has been a useful tool in apprehending criminals.

“State troopers have arrested more than 30 wanted persons, recovered approximately 40 stolen vehicles and arrested or cited almost 200 offenders of driving on a revoked or suspended license with the LPR technology,” she said.

“A single LPR unit costs approximately $20,000, and are typically purchased by the agency through grant funds. If funding allows, we do plan to purchase additional license plate readers for patrol units across the state. We are always looking for ways and resources to help protect the public,” Qualls said.

That price tag has been one reason JCPD steered away from the technology.

“We looked at it back five or six years ago and we looked at what Memphis was doing with theirs,” Chief Mark Sirois said. “They have the real-time crime center and get a lot of data coming in.”

“I think there’s some benefits with the technology, like locating stolen vehicles. If one of the LPRs happens to catch that image, you can go ahead and make an arrest. That’s a benefit right there,” he said. “If there’s a be on the lookout for felony suspects or an Amber Alert and it’s a known vehicle, you can go ahead and make the stop and get somebody off the street.”

Sirois said the technology could also tie in to the Tennessee homeland security database.

“We looked at it, but we just wondered if it was worth the investment of money to actually have it. If it were tied into another system, a regular camera system, it would be more cost effective.”

City police departments in the state that have the license plate readers, and that were included in the ACLU study are Clarksville, Jackson, Knoxville, Murfreesboro, Nashville and Shelbyville. Also in the study were the Department of Homeland Security, city of Jackson, city of Oak Ridge and the state military department of Tennessee.

“The LPR technology is a law enforcement tool utilized to help ensure public safety,” Qualls said. “With the LPRs, State Troopers have the ability to read license plates against various crime databases, checking for wanted suspects, stolen vehicles, missing persons and drivers on a revoked or suspended driver’s licenses, for example.”

Qualls said the THP retains read plates for a maximum of one year at this time.

Retention time was one of the big issues in the ACLU study because most agencies do not have policies to dictate how long the records are kept.

For more information about the ACLU study, visit www.aclu.org/alpr.

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