HomeTop StoriesConnecticutpolicedepartments install license plate readers along roads, raising privacy concerns

Connecticutpolicedepartments install license plate readers along roads, raising privacy concerns

Jul. 26—Law enforcement agencies throughout the state who use the technology are able to share information collected through the Connecticut Online Law Enforcement Communications Teleprocessing, or COLLECT, system.

If agencies are looking for a particular vehicle that has been involved in a crime or a person to whom a vehicle is registered, they are able to communicate with each other to share the information.

Any data collected and shared, however, must be double-checked by the agency seeking the information, said Joshua Bernegger, chief of police of Watertown and the chairman of the Traffic Safety Committee of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association.

There have been a total of 93 license plate readers purchased by both state and municipal police since the technology has launched, but there is not a current count of how many units are active in the field, State Trooper First Class Sarah Salerno said.

She did say, however, that there are roughly 50 units in 14 towns throughout the state.

State police only have the technology in their vehicles and do not operate stationary license plate readers, Salerno said.

While it is not clear exactly how many stationary license plate readers there are in the state or where they are, “they are proliferating very quickly in the state of Connecticut,” Bernegger said.

He argues the technology minimizes the practice of making routine traffic stops to determine whether an occupant of a vehicle is wanted for a more serious crime.

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“We’re in a day and age right now where we have to use technology to our advantage, especially post-George Floyd, when traffic stops for the purpose of criminal detection are being frowned upon,” Bernegger said. “This kind of fills that gap.”

In the past three years in particular, “the message (from the public) was fairly clear that they don’t want the police using motor vehicle enforcement anymore for the purposes of crime detection because it starts flirting with the perception of racial inequities,” he said.

When asked how often the readers have led to arrests, Bernegger said, “more than I can count. It’s invaluable to us.”

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He said that most burglaries and robberies occur with a stolen car, and when they pass one of the stationary cameras, police get an alert, which gives them the location of the vehicle.

They also get an alert when a car is associated with a missing person, Bernegger said.

However, he said, the cameras are not designed to capture photographs of the faces of people in the vehicles.

“Conditions have to be almost perfect to try to make out a face in a vehicle,” Bernegger said. “That’s not what they’re there for. They’re there to pick up the plates.”

Vernon began using the technology in June, said Lt. Robert Marra.

The cameras, he said, help identify stolen vehicles, and vehicles sought because they were used in a crime, or are connected to a missing person, or Silver or Amber alerts.

“The (automatic license plate readers) will improve our capabilities,” Vernon Police Chief John Kelley said. “We are constantly thinking about ways to be more efficient and effective, while protecting the community we serve.”

Privacy concerns

Bernegger said that law enforcement is always tasked with balancing the safety of the public with not being too intrusive.

“In the United States, we are constantly struggling with where the fulcrum lies between public safety and privacy,” he said.

David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said that stationary license plate readers are “potentially even more problematic” than similar technology in police cruisers.

“We take issue with license plate readers at large,” he said. “We think there is very limited public safety benefits to these systems and there are great privacy risks. They capture massive amounts of data that when aggregated tell a lot about a person’s life — where they pray, where they work, where they seek mental health treatment.”

Placing the readers on a town’s borders, McGuire said, is “essentially border enforcement” that tracks people coming into and out of a municipality.

Bernegger said that “crime isn’t jurisdictional.”

“Criminals are traveling all around, so it’s important that all of our departments work together,” he said, adding that “cameras hold everybody accountable,” police officers and the public alike.

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Considering state police are embroiled in a scandal involving widespread fraudulent tickets, McGuire questioned whether law enforcement should be able to install license plate readers and share data without oversight.

“It’s a time where people in Connecticut ought to be very concerned about the ability for police to police themselves,” he said. “These systems are completely set up by the law enforcement agencies and officers and personnel with zero oversight. … We are very, very wary of these.”

McGuire said that he doesn’t see a “clear link” between using license plate readers and minimizing racial profiling, adding that the technology doesn’t prevent crime, but rather helps catch criminals after the fact.

“We at the ACLU are very, very concerned about the expansion of police surveillance because it is something that is very, very intrusive and tends to land most on Black and brown communities who have been at the receiving end of a lot of mistreatment by law enforcement in the history of this country,” he said. “In my mind, it is not the answer to racial profiling, the use of these systems.”

Enfield Police Chief Alaric Fox would not disclose where the license plate readers are in town, but said that they don’t provide any more information than what officers find while on patrol.

That includes whether a vehicle is stolen, if the registered owner is wanted for a crime, or if there were a crime committed fitting the description of a certain vehicle.

Fox said that the license plate readers are not “some Big Brother piece of technology,” and that information gathered is no different than what is stored by the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

“There’s no expectation of privacy in the registration information that is otherwise in DMV databases,” he said.

Sharing information

According to records released in 2019 by the ACLU of Northern California, eight Connecticut police departments — Enfield, Fairfield, Norwalk, Stratford, Trumbull, Westport, Wethersfield, and Southern Connecticut State University — were providing residents’ locations information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

The records showed that the location information, along with the location information provided by more than 80 local law enforcement agencies nationwide, was “powering an expansive automated license plate detector database that ICE is accessing to track people’s daily movements,” according to the ACLU of Connecticut.

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Automated license plate readers, whether mounted on police cruisers or objects like toll gantries, use small, high-speed cameras to photograph potentially thousands of plates per minute depending on where they’re placed and traffic volume.

The data includes the date, time, and location of each scan and is aggregated over time, potentially giving law enforcement an intimate picture of people’s daily lives.

Electronic tolls rely on the technology to scan cars in order to ensure tolls are paid.

Fox said that Enfield has never shared information with ICE, and said the ACLU of Connecticut’s assertion is an “oversimplification” of Enfield’s practices.

“That has never happened,” he said. “ICE has never contacted us and we’ve never contacted ICE.”

Fox said that while he’s not intimately familiar with the back end of the technology or why Enfield was included in the 2019 report, he opined that there may have been a common vendor that was sharing the information without the knowledge of individual police departments.

Regardless, the information gathered from license plate readers doesn’t determine immigration status, he said.

“The license plate reader does not identify whether someone is legal or illegal,” Fox said.

The data in the Watertown system, Bernegger said, is stored for 60 days before it is purged.

If law enforcement agencies are all working with the same vendor, they have the ability to share with each other, he said.

Watertown has entered into agreements to share information with other municipal police departments, but no federal agency, Bernegger said.

State police data is purged every 90 days, Salerno said, adding that “the temporarily stored information is made available to law enforcement only.”

“We do not send the data to ICE,” Marra said referring to the Vernon Police Department. “We do share data with other law enforcement agencies if a legitimate law enforcement request is made.”

Police in Manchester and Glastonbury, both of which are believed to have stationary license plate readers, either declined or did not respond to requests for comment.

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