The American Civil Liberties Union says police and other government agencies — and eventually, private entities — gather information about innocent people via license plate readers and cameras placed on bridges and highways. But local police say they don’t keep the info for long.
Take a drive through Stark County. Chances are, a camera is watching.
Several state, county and local agencies have a variety of cameras trained on area roadways. Some are checking road conditions or traffic; others are scanning license plate numbers or monitoring areas for security reasons.
Area officials use words like “effective” to describe how these cameras have led to arrests of people who have stolen cars or are wanted on arrest warrants. The Canton Police Department, for example, reports roughly 60 such “hits” in the last year, according to Capt. Jack Angelo.
But beware of “mission creep,” says Gary Daniels, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Columbus headquarters.
His organization warns that information made available with these cameras enables almost anyone to track “the types of things many of us would rather not have anybody know ... where we attend political meetings, our houses of worship, drug or alcohol counseling or an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting.
“Any number of things people would rather not have anybody know can all be revealed through the use of automatic license plate readers.”
Daniels said to expect even more eyes in the near future. Unmanned aerial vehicles or drones that the U.S. military uses in warfare overseas will be used by “not only law enforcement, but a lot of other private entities,” he said.
The ACLU is seeking state legislation that determines how long agencies can keep data and with whom they can share it.
In its July 2013 report entitled “You are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers are Being Used to Record Americans’ Movements,” the ACLU complains about the potential for abuses of the system and targeting innocent people by tracking them and collecting the information for later use.
“Mounted on patrol cars or placed on bridges or overpasses, license plate readers combine high-speed cameras that capture photographs of every passing license plate with software that analyzes those photographs to identify the plate number,” the report said.
Combined, the technology could potentially allow anyone from local police to the Department of Homeland Security to collect information on anyone like pieces of a puzzle, “enabling anyone with access to pry into the lives of his boss, ex-wife, or his romantic, political or workplace rivals.”
Daniels said his agency has no problem with police using the information for “legitimate law enforcement purposes. Our problem is when law enforcement uses this data to construct a diary of where it is that anybody has traveled and shares the data amongst each other, from the county sheriff to the Ohio Highway Patrol to the federal Department of Homeland Security.”
The Ohio Department of Transportation maintains 11 web cams in Stark County, all of which line Interstate 77. Workers monitoring the cameras in the department’s Columbus headquarters display traffic congestion and crash alerts around the clock on message boards in affected areas.
Page 2 of 3 - “Our cameras are omni-directional. They rotate 360 (degrees),” said Brent Kovacs, ODOT spokesman. ODOT workers monitoring cameras in the department’s Columbus headquarters can rotate specific cameras for a better view of a crash scene.
Yet, while they are capable of recording, the data is deleted after 24 hours.
“It’s a ton of information and, a lot of times, police will call us for copies of the video for the crash investigation if there’s a camera in the area. But more times than not, it’s deleted before they call us,” Kovacs said.
The 15 cameras placed at intersections by the Stark County Engineer’s Office cannot record, said Brian Cole, traffic engineer. They are video detection cameras that only trip the traffic signal when a specified number of cars line up. The county maintains 93 traffic signals throughout the county.
LICENSE PLATE READERS
The few police agencies in Stark County that have license plate readers say they only use the equipment for an immediate traffic-related issue, and that they don’t share or keep the information — at least not beyond the equipment’s 45-day-long memory.
The Stark County Sheriff’s Department has one license plate reader. It was purchased through a Homeland Security grant.
Sheriff George T. Maier said it is only used to check passing vehicles for owners for whom warrants have been issued, and the information is not stored.
A few other police departments in Stark County also have readers.
Canton Police’s Angelo, who heads the patrol division, said information from his department’s reader is only saved for 45 days. Then, Angelo said, “It automatically deletes. That’s the factory setting.”
He says the information isn’t used for anything else.
“We’ve never gone back to it for anything. We’ve only used it for cases where we’ve recovered something or arrested somebody,” Angelo said.
The information doesn’t go into the LEADS database, the state’s Law Enforcement Automated Data System.
“It goes through the BMV (Bureau of Motor Vehicles) file, which gets updated every week,” Angelo said. The state would have to change the rules for the information to be submitted into LEADS.
And it’s expensive.
“The only reason we even have a license plate reader is because we participated in a traffic enforcement program with the state and the state gave it to us,” Angelo said. “They’re so expensive, they’re cost-prohibitive.”
Canton isn’t alone:
Sgt. Frank Kemp of the North Canton Police Department said his department received its reader nearly two years ago courtesy of a grant. “It has been effective,” he said, noting it has led to some arrests. He said he had no statistics available.
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Alliance Police also have one LPR and it was also obtained through a Homeland Security grant. Lt. John Jenkins said his department has been using it for about seven months. “It doesn’t do everything that we thought it would do,” he said. While it helps officers spot stolen cars, some wanted persons and Amber Alert vehicles, it won’t help an officer determine whether the driver has a suspended license, he said.
CITY SECURITY CAMERAS
Canton, however, recently placed 10 security cameras to place around the Canton Memorial Civic Center and several other Pro Football Hall of Fame festival events, and 20 security cameras along the Grand Parade route.
The cameras, leased from a local company, were not expected to disappear after the festival.
The city’s Parks Commission planned to use cameras to address park vandalism and others were set to be relocated to undisclosed locations. The cameras allow for recording video that can be stored up to 30 days and the information from them is admissible in court.
The city had previously purchased about 10 cameras for use in high-crime areas, but were not cost-effective and haven’t been used often, Angelo said.
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