LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Some Kentucky police officers have added a new task to their duties — taking photos of vehicle license plates.
Automatic license-plate readers are being used by Louisville Metro Police officers, along with those in some other large Kentucky law enforcement agencies, to track down stolen cars and find missing people, The Courier-Journal (http://cjky.it/19TjuYQ ) reports.
Two cameras mounted on law enforcement cars take photos of license plates, which are read by an onboard computer that compares them with national crime data. Police say it speeds investigations by eliminating a need to manually check plates.
"It reads any plate that comes by," said Louisville police Detective Greg Allen, who has the setup on his unmarked police SUV.
The technology has been used on a limited basis since 2007.
The American Civil Liberties Union recently raised concerns that the readers sweep up large amounts of information on innocent motorists, and that law enforcement agencies often lack safeguards to prevent abuses.
"The police departments are able to collect an unbelievable amount of information just from these cameras," said Amber Duke, spokeswoman for the ACLU of Kentucky.
According to a report released by the ACLU in July, three-quarters of the nearly 300 police departments surveyed were using the devices, including Louisville police and Kentucky State Police.
A Courier-Journal review of more than a dozen police departments in some of the largest cities across the state found the system also is used by police in Florence and Kenton County — both in northern Kentucky — and that officials in Hopkinsville are considering purchasing the technology next year.
A spokeswoman for Lexington Police said that department owns a license-plate reader but doesn't use it because of logistical problems with the equipment.
Louisville police have two license-plate reading units that can be mounted on cars or placed in stationary locations near traffic. State police wouldn't say how many they have beyond saying it's less than 10.
A device can scan hundreds of license plates an hour and feed the data into a laptop, which compares the plate numbers with information on stolen vehicles from the National Crime Information Center. A photo also is taken of the back of the car and can be saved in the computer with details on time, date and location.
Allen said the cameras might photograph 8,000 vehicles on a busy night, such as during Kentucky Derby weekend.
"It's been very useful," he said. "We've recovered quite a few stolen vehicles with it."
Neither Louisville police nor state police could specify how many stolen vehicles the technology has helped recover or how many photographs are saved at any given time. They also did not have information on how long the images are kept.
Neither agency has a written policy governing how the data is stored, although Allen said Louisville police are developing one in response to privacy advocates.
KSP Sgt. Robert Motley, who heads up vehicle investigations, said the agency doesn't intentionally keep the information and downplayed privacy concerns, arguing that police can't use the scanners to identify personal information without a much more extensive follow-up investigation.
"I don't know how it would be invading anybody's privacy," he said. "If it's a stolen vehicle, it's a stolen vehicle."
Motley and Allen said their departments have never used the data for anything other than finding stolen vehicles or missing people. They also said that police have no reason to access the information otherwise.
The ACLU's report doesn't object to employing the technology in general, but the group is calling on law enforcement agencies to provide more public transparency and establish detailed guidelines on how the information is stored and used.
Duke said Kentucky lawmakers should consider measures to regulate the scanners.
"These technologies are great law enforcement tools and we are not saying that we shouldn't be using them. We are just saying that we need to be careful about what happens to the information on innocent people," Duke said.
Information from: The Courier-Journal, http://www.courier-journal.com