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License plate readers spark privacy debate in Central, Louisiana.

(TNS) – As Central becomes the latest Louisiana city to consider the use of license plate readers, privacy advocates are concerned about law enforcement’s overreach.

The nine devices, which the city council approved on April 12, will be supplied by Flock Safety. These cameras are already in widespread use throughout Louisiana, including Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and are often credited by law enforcement for their role in identifying stolen cars and drivers with warrants. In progress.

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

The cameras, priced at $2,500 each, are used to detect cars suspected of being involved in crimes, not misdemeanors, he noted, adding that they work in the same way as readers plates that agents use from their vehicles.

“It’s a technology used by law enforcement to help solve crimes,” Corcoran said. “If your child is kidnapped, you would want those cameras over there.”

He also pointed out that while none of the data collected by his department will be publicly available, much of this information is easily accessible through other forums.

“The people say [it’s] an invasion of privacy – well, it’s not an invasion of privacy,” he said. “When you get a license, your information is a public record. When you request a license plate, that information is a public record.”

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

David Maass, director of investigations at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes civil liberties on the Internet, has researched the subject for nearly a decade.

He says that while these technologies are often touted as a solution to fighting crime, they can just as easily be used to track the daily movements of civilians.

“License plate readers are a form of mass surveillance,” he said. “They collect information on everyone, whether or not you have a connection to a crime.”

This type of surveillance allows police to build databases of everyone’s whereabouts, he said. Their travel habits, where they go and when they go can all be searched by police at any time and for no 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 while going about their daily business, and that’s exactly what is happening,” he said. “These cameras just document people’s affairs for no real reason.”

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

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

He added that surveillance technology can also exacerbate racial profiling, allowing law enforcement to surveil low-income or minority communities in ways they have not been able to before.

Maass pointed to an incident in August 2020 where officers in Aurora, Colorado detained a black woman and four young black girls — ages 6 to 17 — at gunpoint after they mistakenly identified the car in which they drove like a volley.

According to the Denver Post, a license plate reader installed at one of the city’s intersections alerted police to the vehicle because it bore the same plate number as a motorcycle reported stolen in Montana. Officers had not checked to see if the car matched the description of the stolen vehicle before arresting it.

Video taken by a passerby 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 as her sister next to her begs the officers to let her hug the inconsolable daughter.

None of the officers involved have been charged after prosecutors finally ruled they did not act unlawfully when they arrested the group.

Although no one in the car was arrested, Maass said incidents like Aurora’s leave a lasting impact.

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

Despite concerns, Corcoran argued that the cameras enhance public safety more than they harm it, citing a local case in which plate readers from a nearby town helped law enforcement track down a man. elderly disappeared.

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 registered heading to Magnolia Bridge in Central.

With the well-placed plate reader, Corcoran said, law enforcement was able to recover the man within hours, possibly preventing a much worse outcome.

“[These cameras] are an investigative tool,” he said. “There is a technology and we are going to use it. It would be stupid not to use it.”

Maass is more skeptical.

“Law enforcement has developed and expanded these arsenals of surveillance technology. License plate readers, drones, cell site simulators, predictive policing technologies, camera networks, facial recognition,” he said. declared. “They’re doing it with very little community input, very little transparency, very little controls in place, and very little thought about how it’s going to affect the criminal justice system as a whole.”

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