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Wauwatosa police object to idea that would limit use of license-plate imaging technology

Privacy concerns cited in legislative proposal on automated systems

An automated license recognition system is seen mounted on the exterior of a Wauwatosa police squad car. The use of such technology is the focus of a debate now being discussed at the state level.

An automated license recognition system is seen mounted on the exterior of a Wauwatosa police squad car. The use of such technology is the focus of a debate now being discussed at the state level. Photo By Peter Zuzga

Dec. 18, 2013

The Wauwatosa Police Department and departments around the state that use automated license plate recognition systems may see only small changes in procedure after a meeting with a state lawmaker who cited privacy concerns in proposing sharp restrictions in the use of the technology.

State Rep. David Craig, R-Vernon, is the primary sponsor of a proposal that would prohibit the use by law enforcement of automated license plate recognition systems, except as part of an active criminal investigation of an identified suspect.

The proposal also would require destruction of data gathered by such a system within 48 hours, unless the information is necessary for an investigation or for the prosecution of a suspect.

An automated license plate recognition system is a set of two specialized cameras mounted on the light rack of a squad car. They capture images of visible license plates. A typical squad car might collect hundreds of plate numbers in a shift. The officer driving the squad car is notified with a signal when plate numbers of stolen cars, or cars associated with crimes, are recorded.

Privacy at issue

Craig cited constitutional concerns in discussing the bill last month. The proposal was drafted after news accounts reported that some police departments were collecting millions of plate images, with plans to keep them for years. The systems also have come under criticism from privacy rights advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union.

Since 2012, Wauwatosa has spent $70,000 on six of the systems, five of which are mounted on its front-line squad cars, with another still to be set up, Police Chief Barry Weber said in a memorandum this month. Restrictions such as those proposed "would render this equipment useless," Weber wrote.

Weber argues that ALPR technology allows officers to locate a suspect within minutes, "instead of sending multiple detectives out to search the county," a savings of potentially hundreds of man-hours.

It also allows the department to respond more effectively in the case of an AMBER alert, for example, when a person has been abducted. The department also plans to use the technology to increase parking citation efficiency.

Alternative proposal

In a meeting of the city's Legislation, Licensing and Communications Committee last week, committee members agreed to direct Weber and City Attorney Alan Kesner to draft a resolution to support an alternative law that would:

· Require a written policy restricting the use of ALPR systems and data to authorized individuals and for legitimate law enforcement purposes, with penalties for misuse of data;

· Require training addressing constitutional, civil rights and privacy concerns;

· Set a retention period of six months to a one year; and

· Restrict the public release of ALPR data.

These points are generally in line with recommendations of the Wisconsin ALPR Association, a law-enforcement data-sharing cooperative, of which Wauwatosa is a member.

A receptive lawmaker

Wauwatosa Police Lt. David Moldenhauer said law enforcement representatives, including those from Wauwatosa, met with Craig, and "he's been very receptive to our input on it, and I believe that we're going to be able to come to a reasonable agreement on what is reasonable."

Moldenhauer said discussions were continuing on how long data may be kept.

A draft of the proposal, co-sponsored by Rep. Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee, and Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, is circulating for additional co-sponsors. It has not yet been introduced.

As a police officer, "obviously I'd like to keep it as long as I can, because if it solves one crime three years from now and it's a major crime, it's worth it in my mind," he said. "I know that they're worried about it being a 'Big Brother' issue, but it's such limited access, and those plate numbers aren't associated with anything — you don't know anything about anybody until you run it through the Department of Transportation."

The exceptions are those plates indicating stolen or crime-related cars.

The database is huge, Moldenhauer acknowledged, but there's no reason to search or seek more information on the average anonymous plate.

Restrictions in place

In any case, Moldenhauer said a lot of the protections sought by Craig are already in place.

"We restrict access here to a certain number of people, and it logs who the person is who goes in to do a search, every time. So, everything he's asking for in terms of restrictions and training, we already do."

He said most other police departments are similarly restrictive.

Moldenhauer said about 15 Wauwatosa police personnel, including detectives, were allowed access to the data.

Private users

More pernicious than law-enforcement use of the technology to Moldenhauer is private use of it.

"The thing that people don't understand is there's private industries that are doing this all the time. There's people that go through Mayfair Mall's lot every day or every couple days and register every plate there, and sell that information."

Buyers of that information might include marketing firms and tow-truck operators searching for cars for repossession.

"We don't sell it to anybody, nor would we," Moldenhauer said.

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