On top of five Racine squad cars there is a small device that likely most people do not notice, but that has attracted lots of attention. They are license plate readers, which capture license plate images and turn the information into data files that can indicate who the vehicles are registered to.
They can be used to identify crime suspects and help solve crimes, police say.
But Rep. David Craig, who recently proposed limiting the use of the devices, said in a memo last month he fears the system is becoming “nothing more than a database of the whereabouts of the average citizens.”
We can see where Craig is coming from. People don’t want police reviewing their every step from last year or five years ago. They don’t want the whole world knowing every noon hour they leave work and go to Burger King.
But then, say if a house is broken into, and televisions and heirloom jewelry are taken, we want police to do everything they can to solve that crime. The license plate readers can help with that because maybe an officer driving down the street while an offender was in the house captured the license of the cars outside. Later, when that crime is reported, police could go back and look at their records and see what cars were there.
However, under Craig’s proposed bill the license plate readers would be prohibited, “except as part of an active criminal investigation of an identified suspect.”
Additionally, under the proposed bill, all information obtained must be destroyed within 48 hours unless the information is necessary for the purpose of further investigation or prosecution of the identified suspect or for another criminal investigation or prosecution.
Unfortunately, in the real world, police don’t have an identified suspect when they arrive at a crime scene and police might not know who the suspected offender is within the first 48 hours.
But, “Eventually, people may come forward with information or a person may be identified later, and that (license plate) information would be very, very valuable to us,” according to Sgt. Jessie Metoyer of the Racine Police Department.
The Racine Police Department has been using the license plate technology for about two years now, and according to Metoyer, the Racine Police Department has not deleted any license plate information obtained through the plate readers so far. But she and Racine Police Chief Art Howell both stressed the information is well-protected and police do not randomly comb through the data.
Still with that being said, Howell called the license plate readers “uncharted waters” and said, “I don’t have a problem with being regulated, I just want to make sure it doesn’t obstruct law enforcement in the process.”
We agree. Going forward, legislators should have an open discussion with law enforcement about these “uncharted waters.” It doesn’t seem like law enforcement should have to keep information on all of our whereabouts for years and years, but at the same time we want police catching suspects and solving crimes. There has to be some middle ground here.