KC police hold a treasure trove of license plate data

Over two years, Kansas City police have used automatic license plate readers mounted on patrol cars to collect nearly 7 million license plate numbers.

The plate numbers are stored in a database along with the time, date and exact location that each vehicle was scanned by one of the readers.

The database can be a gold mine for investigators looking to solve crimes. Kansas City police said they have already used the database to help solve burglaries and shoplifting cases, and it even provided a photo of a homicide suspect’s vehicle.

But the American Civil Liberties Union worries that such databases could fundamentally threaten Americans’ freedom on the roads by tracking the movements of law-abiding motorists.

The ACLU launched a nationwide effort Monday to find out more about how police are collecting and using data amassed by automatic license plate readers. ACLU chapters in more than 30 states sent letters to agencies using the devices. The local chapter of the ACLU sent a three-page letter to the Kansas City Police Department asking about the department’s procedures for its seven mobile readers.

“There’s a huge potential for tracking citizens at all times if the information is not purged or limited in its scope,” said Doug Bonney, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri.

The ACLU’s website said that responsible deletion of data by police across the country is “the exception not the rule.”

There’s also the sticky matter of who has access to the database, Bonney said.

“You might have people who want to know where their spouses’ cars are,” he said.

Kansas City police said they believe the information from their database would be open to public information requests, although the department would charge a fee for the research involved. No one has made such a request yet.

The department has a policy with general guidelines for how the data should be collected and used, but it’s “not particularly substantive,” Bonney said.

A few states have enacted legislation to control the collection and use of such data, but Missouri is not one of them, Bonney said. New Hampshire’s legislature has all but banned such readers, and Maine’s statute forces police to delete their data after 21 days.

Kansas City police said they have not purged any data from the system, but they are close to reaching their digital storage limit. Once that is reached, new information from the devices will begin to override old information in the database.

With only seven devices, police can hardly discern any particular motorist’s daily activities over the city’s 318 square miles, said Sgt. Pat Rauzi.

The patrol cars with the devices respond to 911 calls and travel all over the city. They are sometimes sent to scenes of violent crimes or homicides to help find witnesses or suspects.

The readers quickly scan all vehicles within view and take two photos of each license plate: one in color and one in infrared to record in darkness. The readers sometimes inadvertently capture information from street signs or phone numbers on the sides of vehicles, Rauzi said.

The plate numbers are then checked against a list of stolen vehicles, and vehicles associated with outstanding warrants or Amber Alerts. The system alerts the officer to any hits, which then must be confirmed with dispatchers, according to Kansas City’s policy. All license plate data is stored, regardless of whether the system finds a hit.

Kansas City police say they limit who is allowed to search their database. Detectives, crime analysts and a few project officers have access. Other officers must send investigative requests to a specific analysis unit.

The system tracks who logs onto the database and for how long, but it does not record what specific searches the officers conduct.

The database is not linked to any other agency’s databases, but police said they would like to link with a federal database and other local police departments using the readers, such as Lenexa and Overland Park.

Kansas City police have one reader for each patrol division and one for traffic units. The department would like to buy seven more devices during the next fiscal year and upgrade to software that can record a vehicle’s color, year, make and model, Rauzi said. The current devices cost $26,000 each.

A posting on the ACLU’s website said: “It’s not an exaggeration to say that in 10 years there will be ALPRs just about everywhere, making detailed records of every driver’s every movement, and storing it for who knows how long,”

Private citizens can also buy and use such readers in Missouri, although some states have outlawed private use. Repossession companies use the devices in Kansas City, for example, to scan parking lots, Rauzi said.

The expanding use of the readers without required oversight should trouble Americans, according to a news release the ACLU distributed Monday.

“Tracking and recording people’s movements raises serious privacy concerns, because where we go can reveal a great deal about us, including visits to doctor’s offices, political meetings, and friends,” Gary Brunk, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri, said in a prepared statement. “We need legal protections to limit the collection, retention and sharing of our travel information, and we need these rules right away.”