High-tech license plate readers aid police but raise ethical issues

GALLATIN — Sumner County law enforcement officials are using high-tech cameras to create a detailed picture of the whereabouts of thousands of cars, regardless of whether they are suspected of any link to criminal activity.

Police say that this ability to capture license plates is among the most powerful new crime-fighting tools at their disposal, and that it has already led them directly to vehicles used in crimes.

It’s also a type of government surveillance — spreading quickly, thanks to federal grants — that has raised privacy concerns across the country and pushed police departments to consider how the cameras and records should be used.

“I’m sure that there’s going to be people out there that say this is an invasion of privacy,” said Gallatin Detective James Kemp. But “the possibilities are endless there for solving crimes. It’s just a multitude of information out there — to not tap into it to better protect your citizens, that’s ludicrous.”

As a traffic officer, Kemp learned how easy it is to gather license plates and their locations. All he had to do was head out on routine patrol while special cameras mounted atop his cruiser captured thousands of images in a day — a task that would otherwise be prohibitively time-consuming and labor-intensive for an officer.

A computer inside the car checks the nearby license plates against various crime databases, including wanted suspects, stolen vehicles and sex offenders. It can also check for tax dodgers. If the computer finds a match, a beep alerts the officer.

But that’s just the start for a rapidly expanding program.



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