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License-plate system debated

| Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012, 8:36 a.m.

The American Civil Liberties Union is trying to learn more about camera systems some police agencies say haven't proven useful to them.

Pennsylvania State Police terminated its license-plate recognition camera system in May, said Lt. Jeffrey Hopkins, director of the safety programs division in the Bureau of Patrol, after the Pennsylvania Auto Theft Prevention Authority in January began taking back the 25 mounted camera systems it lent state police in 2009.

The authority wants to give the system to local police departments instead, Hopkins said. Authority Executive Director Cynthia Tolsma said the agency decided to redeploy the cameras because they were not recovering as many stolen vehicles as expected.

State police do not plan to purchase a system, she said.

Some departments using the technology say it hasn't helped solve many crimes and would be more useful if it accessed information on suspended or unlicensed drivers. The ACLU this week questioned how long law enforcement agencies keep information collected and what they do with it.

“Though the number of vehicles that we read was a significant amount ... the return for the number of vehicles was a very low percentage,” Hopkins said. “That told us something we inherently knew — lots of people don't steal cars and drive around with them.”

In 2011, state police scanned more than 3.3 million license plates using the cameras and recovered 30 stolen vehicles, Hopkins said.

“A lot of people think it's going to miraculously solve the world's problems,” he said. “It's a tool and too many people think you use a screwdriver to fix everything. It's only one tool.”

The ACLU of Pennsylvania sent Right-To-Know requests to 14 police departments to gather information about how they use the license-plate recognition cameras as part of a national campaign.

“I think tracking the movements of law-abiding citizens is an invasion of privacy,” said Sara Rose, a staff attorney. “It's the kind of invasion that somebody may not be aware of is occurring.”

Hopkins said state police daily destroyed data troopers didn't use for criminal investigations.

Pittsburgh police have used one license-plate recognition camera for stolen vehicle investigations since 2006, said Sgt. Rich Begenwald, who heads the auto squad. The department keeps data only for immediate responses. He expects to receive another system from the Auto Theft Prevention Authority.

Begenwald said license-plate recognition systems could be more useful if the database included state information on suspended or unlicensed drivers.

“If they would do that, they would be more practical for everyday use for patrol,” he said.

A fixed license-plate recognition camera began recording at South Braddock Avenue and West Hutchinson Street in Regent Square this month and police expect to access the system in real time within the week, Edgewood police Chief Robert Payne said. The $35,000 system, paid for by a Department of Homeland Security grant the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office obtained, will assist in investigations, Payne said.

“We're not going to be spying on anybody,” Payne said. “We're only going to be using it on criminal investigations.”

Baldwin Borough police used a $15,000 federal grant to buy a license-plate recognition system last year. But police haven't been able to use it with the cars' computers, a problem Chief Michael Scott expects new computers would remedy.

“We think that it will be beneficial and it will be able to work,” Scott said. “The one time you need it and you have it, it pays off.”

Margaret Harding is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com.

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