RACINE — If you’ve seen “The Godfather,” you’ll likely remember the scene in the beginning of the movie when, during the wedding of mob boss Don Corleone’s daughter, FBI agents are seen writing down the license plate numbers of guests’ cars.
The scene takes place in 1945, but recording license plate numbers is still something law enforcement officers do today, especially in instances where knowing who might own the vehicles in a certain area could prove valuable.
The trouble is officers don’t always have the time to gather that information by hand.
To solve that problem, Racine police have found tiny machines called “automated license plate readers” that can do the gathering for them, and quickly.
The plate readers, which are typically mounted somewhere on the squad car, capture the image of license plates, turning the information into a data file that can indicate who the vehicles are registered to.
If it turns out that person has any outstanding warrants, or fines, that data will pop up as well.
The department started using the machines about two years ago. It has four machines now and there are plans to purchase a fifth.
The American Civil Liberties Union has raised concerns over the growing use of the machines nationally, primarily the practice of accumulating and storing “millions” of license plate records in databases, but Racine Police Chief Art Howell said that is not a practice his department engages in.
“We don’t stockpile volumes of data on who was where at a given time, unless it has some investigative value,” Howell said. “If we don’t have a reason to save it, we don’t store that data. The city would have to invest in a great deal of server space just to store that data.”
Although the department uses the machines for some traffic enforcement — mostly grant-funded speed or alcohol enforcement projects — Howell said the readers are primarily used for investigative purposes or for public safety during special events.
“Let’s say, for instance, I go to a homicide scene and there are 50 cars in the parking lot; instead of having an officer go write down 50 license plate numbers, we can run the ALPR through the lot and very quickly find out who owns those vehicles,” he said.
Howell said the homicide scene example is the best way to describe why the department would want to use the readers.
“Where we use this tool is pretty much in areas where we would have a reason to believe there were issues,” he said.
Asked if the department planned to acquire even more — it currently has a grant to pay for the machines and their accompanying software — Howell said “no.”
Having five machines should do it, he said.
“You don’t want it in every car, but you want to have it in enough of them so that if something happened, and you needed that equipment, you wouldn’t have to go get it,” he said.