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APD pushes for return of license plate readers, nixed during 2020 police budget cuts

Thursday, June 2, 2022 by Emma Freer

The Austin Police Department advocated for the reinstatement of automated license plate readers, or ALPRs, during a May 23 presentation to the city’s Public Safety Committee, reigniting long-standing concerns about privacy and data sharing among law enforcement agencies. 

City Council canceled APD’s license plate reader contracts during the 2020-21 budget process, which reduced the department’s budget by $31.5 million. The cuts stemmed from mass protests against police brutality and racial injustice during the summer of 2020. 

APD Commander Jeff Greenwalt said the department has since identified the funding to reinstate the contracts – an annual subscription costs approximately $114,000 – but requires Council approval to do so. 

“I hope that’s as soon as possible because it is a tool that we use and need,” he told the Austin Monitor. “Not having it hurts us.” 

ALPRs rely on cameras mounted on vehicles or street poles to take photos of license plates, which are then converted into searchable data, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Greenwalt cited four instances between 2016 and 2020 in which local police used ALPRs to solve crimes, including a child sexual abuser, kidnappers and a suspected serial shooter, during his presentation.

Dave Maass, director of investigations for EFF, described ALPRs as “a form of mass surveillance” in an email to the Monitor

“(T)hey collect information on every driver, regardless of whether they’re suspected of being involved in a crime,” he wrote. “Police create massive databases that can be used to unravel a person’s pattern of life, which could reveal sensitive details, such as where you sleep at night, where you worship, and what medical professionals you visit.” 

Greenwalt acknowledged the privacy concerns and emphasized APD’s privacy policies. If the contracts are re-upped, he told committee members that APD will only make ALPR data available for law enforcement use; conduct quarterly audits of ALPR database transactions; purge all ALPR data after one year; and not use ALPRs for warrant roundups or the collection of overdue fines. 

The sharing of ALPR data among law enforcement agencies is a major concern for criminal justice reform advocacy groups and other organizations dedicated to protecting civil liberties.

Grassroots Leadership pushed Council to cut funding for APD’s license plate reader contracts back in 2020. Bethany Carson, research and policy manager for the group, worries that if APD resumes using ALPR technology, it would share the resulting data with other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Greenwalt told the Monitor that APD would only share ALPR data with other law enforcement agencies, such as ICE, that are conducting a criminal investigation.  

“There is a difference between criminal investigations and what would just be used for their own border enforcement policies,” he said. 

Carson said ALPRs are particularly worrying for more vulnerable groups, such as immigrants, Muslims and Black activists, who may fear being targeted by such technology. 

APD shared at least 39 license plate reader reports with ICE between 2019 and 2020, according to a 2020 report on police surveillance by Grassroots Leadership, Just Futures Law and Mijente. 

“Reinstating this program would mean having to live in greater fear of family separation and just doing the basics to organize and protect themselves as a community,” she said. 

Maass acknowledged there are ways to reduce the potential harm of ALPRs, such as conducting routine audits of search data and reducing the retention period of data that isn’t connected to a crime. He cited New Hampshire, which requires police departments to destroy ALPR data after three minutes if it isn’t involved in an arrest or citation. 

“But ultimately, the safest way to protect people’s privacy is not to collect the data in the first place,” he said. 

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