Both the Charlottesville and Albemarle County police departments have quietly started using a controversial new technology that allows specially equipped patrol cars to read and record every license plate they pass.
City officers have been using the equipment since summer, said Lt. Ronnie Roberts. The county program rolled out earlier this month, scoring its first hit last week, said Cpl. Sean Hackney.
State police have had six or eight of the devices for a couple of years, and rotate them through the state in an effort to combat automobile theft, said spokeswoman Corinne Geller.
John W. Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, a locally based civil liberties group, said the decision should have been public.
“This needs to be something that’s put forward so people can discuss it,” he said. “Things are not supposed to be done in secret.”
As it’s set up right now, the equipment runs each plate it reads against a list of vehicles police want to find. Those are often cars reported stolen, cars listed in Amber alerts and similar vehicles. When police start looking for a suspect’s vehicle, they can also search back through the saved plates in an effort to divine where the suspect is likely to go.
“It helps us in stolen cars, unauthorized use, stuff like that,” Roberts said.
The county saves a record of plates for 60 days; the city saves them for 90.
Each department has one camera, obtained with grant funding. The county machine cost $7,000, Hackney said.
When the camera registers a hit, Hackney said, officers then must confirm that the machine has read the plate correctly and call the plate in again to confirm that the information that someone is looking for it is still correct.
The response by officers to the Charlottesville camera has been very positive, Roberts said.
Whitehead said the technology invades privacy and reverses a traditional relationship between passersby and police.
“You’re presumed guilty now by technology,” he said.
Whitehead expects police to add the devices to more and more patrol cars, chipping away at drivers’ privacy, he said.
As county police searched for suspects in a string of break-ins that plagued Albemarle and other nearby jurisdictions for months, they drove the system around the Richmond Road area.
The vehicle they ended up stopping in connection with those crimes was displaying tags that had been reported stolen from Charlottesville, according to court documents, but police were tipped off not by the new camera but by a residential alarm.
Hackney emphasized that officers still have to manually verify all of the machine’s findings and said the technology cuts needless detainments while officers run tags that come back clean. So far the county has trained eight officers to use the machine, Hackney said.
Charlottesville police officials are in the process of reviewing policies being written nationally about the machines and determining which to adopt here.
Hackney said the system can’t yet search for expired inspections or registrations or suspended drivers, but if the state Department of Motor Vehicles developed a suitable database, those functions could be added.
The county is also exploring setting up an exchange system for data with other nearby agencies, Hackney said.