The four black boxes on two Spokane police patrol cars don’t look like much. They resemble lights, blending in with the rest of the car if you don’t know they’re there.
But they know you’re there.
Last month, the Spokane Police Department equipped two patrol cars with upgraded Automated License Plate Recognition cameras, or ALPR systems. The cameras scan the plates on every car they pass, recording the plate number and a photo into a searchable database – whether it’s linked to a crime or not.
Police say the cameras are working so far. Two days after the new system launched, the cameras led to the arrest of Steven M. Anderson, 22, on charges of possession of a stolen motor vehicle.
The cameras were installed to search for stolen cars. Sgt. Zac Storment, head of the Targeted Crime Unit, said the camera-equipped cars are deployed to areas where crime analysts say lots of cars are stolen.
However, the potential for police to abuse the license plate scanners has sparked pushback from the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU released a study in July titled “You Are Being Tracked,” highlighting what it says is the danger of ALPR technology.
When the cameras scan a car believed to be linked to a vehicle theft, the system alerts the officer. Otherwise, the plate is registered in a database shared by Spokane police and the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office that can be accessed for use in other investigations.
“They don’t capture live video by any means,” Storment said. “They take pictures and the pictures are maintained in our system for 90 days.”
Even the best patrol officer can input only about 200 plates a shift manually, Storment said. With the new system, police can scan as many as 4,000 plates a shift.
“It’s like having a very mindful person that can just sit there and look at every single plate going by,” Storment said.
Though the police had ALPRs on two cars prior to the new installation, the system spent more time broken than functioning, Storment said.
Even with the old system, police say the numbers pointed to a severe vehicle theft problem. Police recovered 30 stolen vehicles and three stolen license plates from April to June and arrested six people, three of whom were arrested on charges unrelated to vehicle theft.
Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene have similar systems and can import Spokane data if a suspected vehicle thief is traveling eastbound, Idaho police say.
“We’ve taken a lot of stolen vehicles off the freeway,” Post Falls Police Capt. Greg McLean said.
But Jamela Debelak, ACLU of Washington’s technology director, said while the cameras have a legitimate law enforcement use, the organization questions if they are being used that way.
“You Are Being Tracked” indicates that at least 22 city police departments and county sheriff’s offices across Washington own ALPR systems, and many don’t limit what plates the scanners can photograph.
There is no reason to track every single plate, Debelak said.
“There should be some sort of reasonable suspicion before they are actually storing the data,” she said.