The Yakima Police Department has been using patrol vehicle-mounted cameras since 2015 to scan license plates in an effort to solve car thefts and other crimes.
Since then, the technology has helped Yakima police recover about 30 stolen vehicles and solve at least two homicides, said Sgt. Mike Henne, who oversees the department’s plate reader technology.
By August, the department had nearly 1.5 million records in a database showing where and when drivers have been. The database was heavily purged Aug. 23 — down to 100,000 — when the department adopted a 365-day record retention policy.
Yet while data collection continues here and at law enforcement agencies across the nation, there are few laws to regulate it. That has some experts worried about privacy concerns and the potential to profile individuals.
“It is clear for us to see that this is an easy way to track people in public places,” said Shankar Narayan, technology and liberty project director with Washington’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “This is especially troublesome because these people aren’t doing anything wrong.”
In the Legislature’s 2017 and 2018 sessions, a bill was introduced in the House to limit the use of plate readers. It would have required police departments to delete any record after 12 hours if it didn’t register with a hit on the database’s hotlist.
The bill, cosponsored by District 15 state Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, never got out of committee.
“It’s all part of a bigger issue of data collection by government entities,” Taylor said. “They are driving around collecting data and there is nothing out there regulating the destruction of data in a timely manner, nothing about regulating who can access that data once it’s stored and not much about who can use public records to get that information.”
Fourteen states have laws regulating plate readers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. With no such laws on Washington’s books, police departments are free to collect and use information any way they see fit.
Yakima police, however, say the technology is only being used to fight crime and that they have policies in place to prevent abuse.
Sgt. Mike Henne, the officer in charge of overseeing the department’s plate-reader technology, said the Washington State Law Enforcement Records Retention Schedule provides guidance on plate-reader data storage.
The schedule suggests police should “retain until verification that a significant image has not been captured then destroy.” Henne said the department interprets a “significant image” as any with a clearly readable license plate.
Automated license plate readers are a relatively new tool in the crime fighting arsenal. The cameras automatically read a car’s license plate and compare it against a hotlist of stolen cars, locally and elsewhere, and other vehicles that might be involved in crimes.
Henne said eight Yakima patrol vehicles have been equipped with the cameras. The YPD bought the readers in the spring of 2015 for about $164,000.
The cameras read the license plates of passing cars and feed the information to a database that has a list of flagged vehicles. That hotlist is compiled from information in the Washington State Criminal Information Center, the FBI’s National Crime Information Center’s database and crime databases from other police departments across the nation. Officers can also manually enter plates into the database.
When officers get alerts for vehicles on the hotlist, they then confirm the hits to get probable cause and pull over the driver.
In a previous Yakima Herald-Republic article, Henne said the department’s cameras are capable of scanning about 9,500 plates in a month. After a plate is read, the camera notes when and where it was scanned and sends that record to a database for later use.
Other agencies that use plate readers can request to share hotlist information with Yakima police. Those agencies can’t see the records generated by the cameras unless a license plate matches a hotlist that the agency submitted.
The database is hosted by Vigilant Solutions, the same company that sold Yakima police the plate readers. Vigilant provides plate-reader technology support to hundreds of police agencies throughout the United States.
Since June 2017, a significant number of Yakima’s plate readers were offline because of a malfunction caused by an installation error. Henne said the cameras have been fixed and hopes all will be fully reinstalled in a few months.
Plate-reader technology spread quickly after it became available.
A 2011 investigation by Washington’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union found that at least 22 city police departments and sheriff’s offices in the state reported owning plate reader systems. Nationwide, a 2014 study by the Rand Corporation found that almost 70 percent of police departments use the technology.
The proliferation of plate readers has prompted a debate: Does the use of this technology constitute a violation of privacy and if so, is the violation worth the greater good of keeping communities safe?
“The big concern here is that this data paints a clear picture of people’s activities in public and where they like to go,” Narayan said. “All of this is done on members of the public without any suspicions of them doing anything wrong.”
Critics can’t cite many examples of police using the technology to target civil liberties, however. Dave Maass, senior investigative researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that’s because police departments often are the only ones with the data.
The foundation was formed in 1990 as a nonprofit organization to defend civil liberties in the digital world. Maass said he has reported on license plate reader abuses for years.
He pointed to an instance in 2010 where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials worked with police departments in Southern California to install plate readers at gun shows.
The ACLU also reported an incident where Virginia State Police used readers to record license plates of vehicles attending President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, as well as campaign rallies for Obama and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Narayan said he worries about the potential effect collecting and storing this kind of data can have on people’s willingness to participate in demonstrations and protests.
He also said pervasive use of this technology can make people in minority communities afraid to go out and do the things they usually would.
Henne dismisses that worry. He said the department has worked hard to cultivate trust between minority groups and would hate to see that trust broken over concerns about plate reader usage.
“I have no idea how that can be used to target minorities,” Henne said. “Unless someone is being very creative on the outside, I have no idea how they’d use that.”
He was also firm in his insistence that the police department does not work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
“We do not share our data with ICE. We’ve already been instructed and we’ve already made it clear to Vigilant that we do not share any of our data (with ICE),” Henne said. “(Sharing) wasn’t a consideration at first. We didn’t realize that was a possibility. Once we found out that was a possibility that ICE could use our data, we shut that down.”
Henne said the only way police officers can access an individual record is to have a relevant case number and a reason to access it. He said department policies are in place to ensure that officers don’t access police records without a good reason.
“We are very careful about how we use this data. There’s a lot of safeguards in place. Anytime anyone accesses that information, it is tracked.”
In the end, Henne said, all the department is trying to do is fight crime.
How long is too long?
A big part of the debate is centered on how long plate-reader records should be stored.
“The issue is that ultimately there is a decision where you need to value people’s healthy concern for databases and the government, as well as having the right data captured to apprehend very serious criminals,” said Steven Strachan, executive director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
“At the end of the day you’re trying to find a time that balances those two competing interests,” he said.
The association recommends a 60-day retention policy. The Yakima Police Department opted for a year.
Brian Buchert, the department’s police applications specialist, said the department figures that after a year, the information loses usefulness because, among other things, people drive different cars.
“We don’t want everyone thinking we’re hoarding data forever,” Henne said. “The more data we hoard, the more work it takes (to go through). Somewhere there has to be a happy medium because if you only hold it for 30 days, a lot of that data just isn’t going to be useful for us when it comes to solving a certain crime or a major crime.”
Narayan said a year is too long because the value of license plate data decreases quickly. He said that the best window to recover a stolen vehicle is between 48 to 72 hours.
“There’s no good reason for this data to sit around, ripe for abuse,” he said.
A 2009 study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, however, points out that collected data can be useful in future investigations and could be used “to generate leads for the investigation of subsequent crimes.”
Henne said the department is keeping track of different court cases around the nation to learn how to manage plate-reader data.
He said the department doesn’t know when it’s going to need the information it collects. That’s especially true for homicide investigations, which sometimes can take a long time to wrap up.
“Sometimes it can take several months before they get a read on a license plate number,” Henne said. “We don’t want to destroy potential evidence before a case is resolved. We don’t know what’s going to be valuable.”