Burlington PD wants to put automatic plate readers on squad cars to help prevent crime

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Chief Beaird’s presentation begins at 25:20

BURLINGTON, Iowa — Trying to reduce crime in the city, the chief of police has suggested mounting automatic license plate readers onto the department’s squad cars.

Police Chief Doug Beaird made his pitch for automatic readers at the Burlington City Council’s work session on Monday, December 12, 2016.

Automatic readers are able to quickly scan license plates and instantly cross-check them with databases like the National Crime Information Center and the Iowa System, Beaird explained.  Those databases have the ability identify outstanding warrants, barrings, suspensions and more.


Chief Doug Beaird at the city council meeting, Dec. 12, 2016

Beaird noted that the department could use this technology to identify patterns that would improve the efficiency of their investigations. He gave several examples including tracking down a child in an Amber Alert situation or locating a suspect based on where a plate has been tracked previously.

Opponents of this technology have concerns about privacy. According to a report by Governing, a handful of states have placed restrictions on the technology over concerns that the readers could be misused.

In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union took a close look at how hundreds of police departments were using the technology.  For a tool that is used for surveillance and mass location tracking, they found that there were “too few rules” in place.

In response to this type of criticism, Beaird noted that “there is no expectation of privacy to your license plate” and that the readers identify “the plate, not the person in the car.”

However, he said several times that he did not want to proceed if he didn’t have the support of the community.

“I want to make it very clear that if the community doesn’t support it and doesn’t want it, then that’s the last thing we want, he said.

One automatic plate reader costs around $21,800.  Additionally, the reader would cost $1,500 each year for server space and maintenance.

Council members shared their thoughts on the technology, talked about costs, and agreed on the importance of gauging community support before moving forward.

“People keep asking what we can do on the crime, well here’s another step forward,” said one council member.