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Advocates Worry as Central, La., Police Increase Surveillance

The Louisiana city’s police department wants to deploy nine license plate readers to help identify stolen cars and drivers with outstanding warrants. But critics worry about the tech’s infringement on privacy rights.

(TNS) — With Central becoming the latest Louisiana city to consider the use of license plate readers, privacy rights advocates are raising concerns about law enforcement overreach.

The nine devices, which the City Council OK'd on April 12, will be provided by Flock Safety. Such cameras are already in widespread use throughout Louisiana, including in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and are often credited by law enforcement for their role in identifying stolen cars and drivers with outstanding warrants.

Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran has long advocated for the technology, which works by scanning license plates and running them through a national database, allowing law enforcement agencies to compare plate numbers against those of stolen cars or cars driven by people suspected to be involved in criminal activities.

The cameras, priced at $2,500 each, are used to detect cars believed to be involved in felonies, not misdemeanors, he noted, adding that they operate similarly to the plate readers officers use from their vehicles.

"It's technology used by law enforcement to help solve crimes," Corcoran said. "If your child is kidnapped, you would want these cameras out there."

He also emphasized that while none of the data his department collects will be available to the public, much of that information is readily available through other forums.

"People are saying [it's] an invasion of privacy — well, it's not an invasion of privacy," he said. "When you get a license, your information is public record. When you apply for a license plate, that information is public record."

Still, some civil liberties advocates worry about the larger implications of an increased reliance on police surveillance technology.

David Maass, director of investigations at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes internet civil liberties, has studied the subject for nearly a decade.

He says that while these technologies are often touted as a solution to combat crime, they can just as easily be used to track civilians' everyday movements.

"License plate readers are a form of mass surveillance," he said. "They collect information on everyone, regardless of whether you have any connection to a crime at all."

This kind of surveillance allows police to build up databases on everyone's comings and goings, he said. Their travel patterns, where they go and when they go can all be searched by police at any time and without reason.

"It's the equivalent of a digital checkpoint. People would be really irritated if they had to be stopped frequently for no reason just to be documented as they were going about their daily lives, and that's exactly what's happening," he said. "These cameras are just documenting people's business without any actual reason for it."

A general lack of oversight surrounding the issue means officers can — and sometimes do — use the information for personal gain. Maass said he's seen plate readers used by officers to track former romantic partners or disgruntled neighbors, or as a way to make money by selling the information.

"These are things we see constantly with all kinds of police data," he said.

He added that surveillance technology can also exacerbate racial profiling, allowing law enforcement to monitor low-income or minority communities in ways they previously haven't been able.

Maass pointed to an incident in August 2020 where officers in Aurora, Colorado held a woman and four young Black girls — ranging in age from 6 to 17 years old — at gunpoint after they mistakenly identified the car they were driving in as stolen.

According to the Denver Post, a license plate reader installed at one of the city's intersections alerted police to the vehicle because it had the same plate number as a motorcycle reported stolen from Montana. The officers had failed to check whether the car matched the description of the stolen vehicle before pulling it over.

A video taken by a bystander shows the four girls lying face down in a parking lot, two of them with their hands cuffed behind their backs. The youngest, dressed in a pink t-shirt and matching pink crown, cries for her mother while her sister next to her begs officers to let her hug the inconsolable girl.

None of the officers involved were charged after prosecutors ultimately ruled they did not act unlawfully when they pulled the group over.

Even though no one in the car was arrested, Maass said incidents like the one in Aurora leave a lasting impact.

"You have a car full of kids who are now going to be permanently traumatized and their relationship with police is now permanently damaged," he said.

Despite concerns, Corcoran argued the cameras enhance public safety more than they detract from it, citing one local instance in which plate readers in a neighboring city helped law enforcement track down a missing elderly man.

The man's family gave his plate number to authorities, who entered it into their database. The system immediately found a match, informing officers that his vehicle had recently been logged heading toward Magnolia Bridge in Central.

Thanks to the well-placed plate reader, Corcoran said, law enforcement was able to pick up the man in a matter of hours, possibly preventing a much worse outcome.

"[These cameras] are an investigative tool," he said. "There's technology out there and we're going to use that technology. It would be foolish not to use it."

Maass is more skeptical.

"Law enforcement has been growing and growing these arsenals of surveillance technologies. License plate readers, drones, cell site simulators, predictive policing technologies, camera networks, face recognition," he said. "They're doing this with very little community input, very little transparency, very few controls in place and very little thought to how this is going to affect the criminal justice system overall."

(c)2022 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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