What you should know about those license plate readers popping up in neighborhoods

Next time you’re driving through a Louisville suburb, pay attention to the street poles — they may be watching you.

A growing number of neighborhoods in the East Ends are joining thousands of others across the US to purchase license plate cameras that snap pictures of any vehicle that goes down their streets.

They also take pictures of faces as well.

Subdivisions such as Polo Fields and The Woods of St. Thomas swear by them, saying they’ve helped cut down on car break-ins and porch pirates.

More: Crime stopper or ‘nosy neighbor’? Suburban Louisville license plate cameras are watching you

Here’s what you should know about the technology and the concerns around it:

How do license plate readers work?

The solar-powered, motion-activated cameras snap pictures showing the license plates and other identifying features of every vehicle that enters the neighborhood, or any person or bicycle that starts to be nearby when the recording.

From a laptop, those time-stamped images can be pulled up of each vehicle’s make, model, color and license plate.

The images are available in a searchable database available to the neighborhood group paying for service.

How much do license plate readers cost?

Prices vary. The Polo Fields neighborhood association is paying $2,000 a year per camera to Flock Safety, an Atlanta-based company that markets automated license plate readers to communities and police departments across the country.

The subdivision has six cameras guarding its entrances.

What’s the concern about license plate readers?

The fear is this: Big Brother is watching you.

Civil liberties and privacy advocates say the cameras unnecessarily invade people’s privacy.

And that power can be abused, particularly when plate readers are in the hands of neighborhood groups and homeowner’s associations that lack the training or public accountability of law enforcement agencies.

Do license plate readers deter crime?

Depends on who you ask. Some neighborhoods wear by them, and company literature says they have the stats to back up their effectiveness.

Flock Safety’s website says after deploying plate readers, year-over-year crime fall 70% in San Marino, California, while one Dayton, Ohio, neighborhood saw crime fall 43%.

Independent researchers aren’t as sold.

Two nonprofit organizations together studied the use of license plate readers by law enforcement in Piedmont, California, and found that less than 0.3% of license plate reader “hits” led to an investigative lead related to an associated crime.

Do license plate readers make mistakes?

Concerns abound that automated license plate readers — especially older units — are prone to mistakes.

A 2021 study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that weather can affect a camera’s ability to read a license plate and that cameras connected to out-of-date local and state databases generated false-positive hits.

Reports of individuals pulled over because of a false positive license plate reader hit frequently make the news.

In 2018, a California man — who also happens to be chair of the privacy advisory commission in Oakland, California — sued the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s department in federal court after he and his brother were pulled over, held at gunpoint, injured by police, unlawfully searched and handcuffed because a license plate reader made by Vigilant Solutions (now called Motorola Solutions) notified officers the vehicle was stolen.

Brian Hofer rented the car to travel on Thanksgiving weekend. It had been reported stolen earlier that year, The Verge reported, but the database connected to the license plate reader hadn’t been updated after it was recovered.

A woman from Mount Juliet, Tennessee — a suburb of Nashville — was held at gunpoint and handcuffed shortly after pulling into a Walmart to pick up groceries in December 2020.

Police believed she was driving a stolen car based on a Rekor Systems automated license plate reader hit, but it was a mistake, The Tennessean reported.

Two months earlier, the woman, who drove a 2012 white Dodge Journey SUV, was involved in a car accident the same night a white Dodge Avenger — a sedan — was stolen. The same officer took both reports that night and mistakenly included the Dodge Journey tag information with the stolen vehicle report.

Before confronting the woman, officers noticed a “mismatch” of the plate to the car but continued anyway. A spokesperson with the department told The Tennessean it “isn’t unusual” for the plate not to match the car.

Scott Allen Polo Fields Homeowner Association, to talk about the neighborhood's use of Flock Safety automated license plate readers.. March 31, 2022

Scott Allen Polo Fields Homeowner Association, to talk about the neighborhood’s use of Flock Safety automated license plate readers.. March 31, 2022

Have police misused license plate readers?

Law enforcement agencies have also been caught abusing the technology:

  • In 2015, police in Freehold Township, New Jersey, used license plate readers to troll various shopping malls and centers for vehicles that were stolen or unregistered, as well as vehicles with owners who were unlicensed, suspended or had a warrant for their arrest. But first, the township’s council created a local ordinance that doubled the fines for such violations when parked so the town would get a larger portion of the proceeds compared to issuing a standard unregistered vehicle ticket, for example, per state law, the Asbury Park Press reported.

  • In 2016, three police departments in Texas developed agreements with a tech company, Vigilant Solutions, which is now Motorola Solutions, that supplied free license plate readers and credit card machines for departments to keep in police vehicles. In exchange, the company received a 25% surcharge on the court fines for outstanding warrants or violations processed upon being pulled over — essentially giving motorists a choice to pay or go to jail. A year later, the city of Kyle, Texas, bailed on its agreement with what the company called its Warrant Redemption program.

  • In 2017, the ACLU of Northern California found that more than 80 law enforcement agencies in 12 states were sharing license plate reader database information with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — sometimes in violation of state laws or sanctuary policies.

Jonathan Bullington is an investigative reporter. Reach him at: 502-582-4241; [email protected]; Twitter: @jrbullington.

Kala Kachmar is an investigative reporter. Reach her at 502-582-4469; [email protected] or @NewsQuip on Twitter. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: www.courier-journal.com/subscribe.

Mike Trautmann: 502-582-7081; [email protected]; Twitter: @CJNewsDirector. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/subscribe.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: License plate readers: Do they work as well as claimed to stop crime?

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