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Wichita to Take License Photos in High-Crime Neighborhoods

There has been a 111 percent increase in drive-by shootings that the city hopes to reduce in a pilot program to identify violent crime offenders. But privacy advocates have concerns about the plate-reading technology.

(TNS — Wichita, Kan., police might take a photo of your vehicle using an automatic license plate reader if you drive through high-crime areas.

The pilot program is targeted at reducing violent crime in the city, which has had a 111 percent increase in drive-by shootings in one year, said Lt. Casey Slaughter.

"It's huge, it's astounding," Slaughter said of the increase in violent crime. "It's one of those things where we feel as a department we're obligated, certainly, to do something. And this is just one tool among many in the bag that we're going to try to see if this will be something that will help us out and help us identify suspect vehicles and ultimately suspects in these violent crimes."

The department already uses mobile license plate readers in some patrol vehicles, and Slaughter is the administrator of the system. The new ones are solar-powered and fixed to one location, but can be moved relatively easily from a stoplight in one part of the city to a streetlight or telephone pole in another as crime trends change. People likely won't know if there is one in their community because there are already many other devices on traffic signals, Slaughter said.

"It's an exciting time, in terms of being able to use technology," he said. "We've had a lot of advances in technology, and this is just one tool we can use to help combat rises in violent crime."

"All it is really is a force multiplier. It's able to be in various areas that we just don't have the resources and time to be able to be in all the time. We can't have an officer standing next to an intersection looking at and writing down tags as they go by. This will do it in automated and very efficiently fashion."

The license plate readers are already being installed in about 35 locations as far east as Rock, as far north as 21st Street, as far west as Ridge and as far south as 31st Street.

"They're simply taking snapshots of movement when a car comes by that location, and then it's also running it against a hot list of information," Slaughter said. "And then of course it can alert us and say: 'Hey, a violent crime offender just drove through here on a vehicle you're looking for.' "

Police can also go back in time and query the data to see if vehicles were previously caught on camera. There is no video recording.

The device takes a still photograph of the back of a vehicle when it sees the license plate. It then stores the characters from the tag, as well as the vehicle make, model and color. The vehicle is recognized using the taillights.

"That's in addition to all of the normal investigative things we would typically do, whether it's going out and conducting neighborhoods, talking to witnesses, looking at actual video surveillance in the area," Slaughter said.

License plate readers have had some success with solving crime in Wichita.

Slaughter said when the technology for license plate readers in patrol vehicles was first demonstrated in Wichita in 2014, a drive-by shooting happened during the demonstration. Detectives had a partial tag with a basic vehicle description. They put the information into the tag reader, and officers found the suspect vehicle in the suspect's driveway as the suspect stood next to the car.

"We were able to make an arrest, and actually make a second arrest of another suspect that was in the area as well, and that was completely due to license plate reader technology," he said.

While the readers will primarily be focused on violent crime hot spots, they may also be used to solve property crimes, such as auto theft. They could also be beneficial when Amber Alerts and Silver Alerts are issued.

Wichita's free 90-day trial period for the license plate readers will be followed by evaluating metrics to see if the city should continue the program. Police will measure whether it increased the rate of solved cases, the number of vehicles identified in connection to a crime, the number of kidnapping or Amber Alert victims rescued, any auto thefts recovered and any burglary suspect identified.

Privacy Concerns

The American Civil Liberties Union has previously raised concerns about police use of license plate readers.

"Automatic license plate readers have the potential to create permanent records of virtually everywhere any of us has driven, radically transforming the consequences of leaving home to pursue private life, and opening up many opportunities for abuse," the ACLU has said. "The tracking of people's location constitutes a significant invasion of privacy, which can reveal many things about their lives, such as what friends, doctors, protests, political events, or churches a person may visit.

"In our society, it is a core principle that the government does not invade people's privacy and collect information about citizens' innocent activities just in case they do something wrong. Clear regulations must be put in place to keep the government from tracking our movements on a massive scale."

The WPD policy on the technology is publicly available online.

The department follows many of the ACLU's principles.

The ACLU calls for permitting law enforcement to use license plate readers only to investigate crimes. The data should not be shared with third parties that do not follow proper retention and access principles.

Slaughter said Wichita police only permit trained officers to access the information, and it can only be accessed for an investigative reason. Policy also permits sharing of information with other law enforcement agencies.

The ACLU also states that government must not store data about innocent people for a lengthy time.

The data from Wichita's new license plate readers is stored for no more than 30 days, unless if it is connected to a specific crime.

While it doesn't appear that WPD issues annual public reports on its license plate readers, as the ACLU recommends, the department conducts internal audits to ensure no unauthorized access. The ACLU also recommends permitting people to know if their vehicle data is contained in a police database. It is unclear if that is allowed in Wichita.

"I really feel like we have a pretty robust policy," Slaughter said. "Probably the greatest thing about our program is that the Houston HIDTA license plate reader director has told me on several occasions that we're one of the models for how license plate readers should be run, in the entire nation."

(c)2020 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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