Local

Wichita police: License plate scanners could help cut crime (VIDEO)

Wichita police Officer Dustin Nail cruises Wichita streets and parking lots in a patrol car equipped with a license plate scanner. Cameras mounted on the trunk record every license plate number the car passes, and a computer alerts of any reported criminal activity related to the tag number. (Nov. 11, 2014)
Wichita police Officer Dustin Nail cruises Wichita streets and parking lots in a patrol car equipped with a license plate scanner. Cameras mounted on the trunk record every license plate number the car passes, and a computer alerts of any reported criminal activity related to the tag number. (Nov. 11, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

Officer Dustin Nail hopes the Wichita Police Department buys license plate scanners like the one he’s been testing in recent weeks.

He likes putting criminals in jail. He says the scanner he’s been using on a patrol car in south Wichita has given him and other officers a phenomenal new ability to catch bad guys.

But he and his bosses worry a bit about what people might think.

The scanners don’t just identify the license plates of bad guys. They record the license plate of every motorist’s car that Nail’s patrol car passes. With their precise locations, date and time. And he can pass thousands of motorists every day on patrol.

Court cases have been filed, in California and elsewhere, by civil liberties groups worried that Big Brother with the scanners can now track all of us. Everywhere. All the time.

Those worries are overblown, Nail said.

He drove his patrol car into a Wal-Mart parking lot in south Wichita on Tuesday. A minute and a half later, Nail’s scanner cameras had shot pictures of the license plates of dozens of cars. His patrol car laptop flashed images rapidly, of license plates and cars, and the computer beeped every time it recorded a plate, a rapid-fire beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep.

If one of those cars was registered to a car thief or sex offender or wanted criminal, the computer would have told Nail instantly.

But also, if he wanted to, Nail could now look up the names of a whole lot of Wal-Mart shoppers.

A big fan

The scanners will stop more criminals who currently get away with robberies, auto thefts and break-ins, Nail said. The scanners will also give cops a huge advantage if they are racing to save a child during a kidnapping, he said.

His boss, Capt. Jose Salcido, hopes his department buys as many cameras as possible. He and his officers are veteran cops, not easily surprised – but the scanners surprised them, Salcido said.

In six weeks of testing, using cameras on one patrol car, Nail and Salcido’s other officers made 15 more arrests than they would have otherwise, mostly car thieves. They returned $80,000 in stolen property to owners. “I got to tell you, it feels real good to return stolen property to citizens,” Salcido said.

Multiply those numbers by 42 (the number of patrol cars Salcido commands in the Police Department’s Patrol South bureau), then multiply those numbers by four (the number of patrol bureaus in Wichita), and anyone can see that license plate readers would put a huge dent in Wichita crime, he said.

The scanners are cameras – usually several cameras bolted to a police patrol car and linked to the laptop computer attached to the dash next to the police officer driving. With the scanners, one officer can instantly record the license plate numbers and exact GPS coordinates of every one of the thousands of cars and trucks the officer passes on any patrol.

Scanners would quickly remove more criminals from the streets, Salcido said. And because many thefts are tied to the illegal drug trade, it would probably reduce Wichita’s drug problem, he said.

When his supervisors asked him to test scanners, Salcido assigned the job to Nail and several other SCAT cops – Special Community Action Team, veteran officers who target drug complaints and violent crime.

“I have to tell you, man, I’m a big fan,” Salcido said of the scanners. He rode along with an officer using the scanners recently.

“I read 500 license plates in 10 minutes. That’s phenomenal. You could assign 20 officers to run license plates and those 20 wouldn’t be able to run that many plates in an hour.”

‘Hot lists’

When officers like Nail use the scanners, they pre-load the patrol car computer linked to the cameras with several “hot lists.”

The lists contain names – and associated license plate numbers – of registered sex offenders, known thieves, wanted felons and so on.

“If you pre-load it with the information on registered sex offenders, for example, you’ll be able instantly to know, if you drive past, when they are in an area or at a school,” Salcido said.

Nail understands why scanners scanning thousands of innocent residents might concern those already unsettled about government intrusion.

But he says he has better things to do than bother the innocent.

What the scanner gives a patrolling officer is a photo of a license plate, a color photo of the vehicle, a time stamp and a GPS location, which can also be stored and reviewed later. This happens at light speed every time a cop car passes any vehicle – and those patrol cars pass hundreds or thousands of vehicles every day and night. “We’re running that patrol car with the scanners as much as 18 hours a day,” Salcido said.

The scanners scan nearly every rolling or parked vehicle that a patrol car passes, and if the officer passes a car with a plate associated with a “hot list” name, the laptop instantly sounds an alarm and literally speaks: “Stolen vehicle.” Or “registered sex offender.”

The manufacturer, Nail said, told officers that the scanner works even if the officer is traveling at 150 miles per hour.

Innocent people

License plate readers run by cops are a touchy national issue. Court cases have been filed.

Plate scanning has multiplied across the U.S. over the past decade, paid for mostly by Homeland Security grants. Judges in California recently upheld authorities’ rights to keep details from hundreds of millions of scans a secret.

Civil liberties advocates say that how the data is collected and used and how long it is stored needs to be open to public scrutiny to prevent government overreach and privacy invasion.

Wichita doesn’t have scanners officially yet. The cameras Nail operated last week were provided by a manufacturer, after Wichita police decided to test-drive the technology.

One worry is that police nationally are setting up a rapidly expanding digital network that uses cameras mounted to traffic signals and police cruisers.

Another worry is that some of those law enforcement agencies are storing the data. Those cameras capture the license plates regardless of whether the drivers are being investigated.

About seven in 10 law enforcement agencies used scanners in 2012 and an overwhelming majority planned to acquire such systems or expand their use, according to a survey of 70 mostly large police departments. The survey was conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum, a research and policy group.

Advice from citizens

But the possibilities are impressive, Salcido said.

Kansas City police earlier this year caught a highway sniper who terrorized motorists for several weeks in the spring. The sniper hit 12 cars and two people. A mother found a bullet had ripped through the door next to her daughter.

Police caught the shooter, in part because a witness got suspicious of the driver of a green Dodge Neon and jotted down the plate number. But police, after they got that tip, tapped into 11 million or so license plate images their officers had gathered with scanners. They linked that car to other locations where shots had been fired – and they arrested Mohammed Pedro Whitaker, 27, of Jackson County, Mo.

Salcido said testing by his department will end in a couple of weeks.

After that, he intends to suggest that police buy scanners but seek citizen advice about how they are used. He’ll also recommend that the department delete all information scanned, after a few weeks or months. That way, the department won’t store the movements of innocent citizens over time, he said.

Dumping the data also would solve another problem. The visual images captures by those cameras take up computer space. “We don’t have the storage capacity,” Salcido said.

“Privacy of private citizens should be a big concern,” Salcido said. “Privacy is going to have to be a big consideration.”

Benefits/costs

Criminals will hate the scanners, Salcido said.

For example, car thieves are a big problem in Wichita. In the past four years, according to department records, 7,217 cars were stolen in Wichita. Imagine getting all those thieves off the streets, he said.

And because so many thefts are done to buy drugs, arresting those people might also lead to shutting down drug houses, shutting down fencing operations for stolen goods and capturing dealers. Police, with this enhanced form of eyes and ears, also could strengthen crime-fighting strategies. When Nail and other officers get a hit on a stolen car, for example, they might not make a stop right away. They might stake out the car for a while and study who drives it, and where.

In high-crime neighborhoods, he said, they could pre-load the car computer with names of known local criminals and study their movements for a while, making links that could lead to more arrests. A strategy like that could put big dents in neighborhood crime, he said.

The cameras won’t be cheap, Salcido said.

Outfitting one patrol car with front and back cameras costs anywhere from $20,000 to $28,000, according to the manufacturer, Salcido said.

Outfitting all the patrol cars, by his rough estimate, might cost more than $4 million, and right now the department doesn’t have money budgeted to outfit even one patrol car, he said. The minimum he thinks the department might reasonably consider is to get one patrol car equipped with scanners for each of the four bureaus.

He and other commanders are going to try to make a case to people outside the city government for funding. Insurance companies have a big incentive to want better police work, he said. So do car companies. So does the Wichita Crime Commission, Salcido said.

Challenges to privacy

Scanners and other advancements in technology are giving governments the ability to push the boundaries of our privacy, Thomas Romig said. He said our elected representatives have an important challenge in protecting us.

Romig is the dean of the School of Law at Washburn University now. But his job before that was as Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Army, including in the aftermath of the 2001 terror attacks. He served the country, as an Army officer and as a lawyer, but in a way he became an eyewitness, in his view, to government over-reach. He publicly opposed the water-boarding interrogations of terror suspects, for example.

New technology has created a tangle of challenges for law schools like his, and the privacy of private citizens like all of us, he said.

It’s not just about tracking the whereabouts of our license plates and ourselves, he said. New technology could come right into our backyards.

“For example, if a flying police drone, on a routine traffic patrol over downtown, captures an image of something going on in someone’s backyard, and if no one would have been able to tell what happened if not for the drone, is that image admissible in a crime case?” he said. “The courts are going to wrestle with questions like that for many years.”

Worth it

By coincidence, Salcido pointed out, his department has come under pressure from citizen groups, in the wake of the police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., to buy another kind of camera.

Department commanders publicly pledged recently to buy body cameras for all 450 department officers, an expense of at least $1.5 million.

“We should buy the body cameras,” Salcido said. “But we should buy the license plate scanners, too.”

Some concerns expressed by scanner critics are easily answered, Salcido said.

As good as the scanners are, they don’t do anything more than take a photo of a license plate at a given location at a given time. And legally, he said, the scanner images are not considered grounds for probable cause for a traffic stop or an arrest.

“Even if I get a hit on a stolen car, I still have to do the same thing I’d do if I didn’t have the cameras,” Nail said. “I have to get on the radio, and call SPIDER (Special Police Information Data Entry Retrieval). I still need to tell them the license plate number, and get confirmation from them that the plate is for a stolen car or stolen tag or something else. And only when I get verification can I make the stop.”

Nail said worries about citizen privacy can be addressed.

“I’ve thought about this, and can’t think of how this can be used to abuse anyone,” Nail said.

“And if it saves one child during a kidnapping, it’ll be worth it.”

Contributing: Kansas City Star, Associated Press

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

  Comments