WALLINGFORD — State Trooper Joshua McElroy parked his cruiser on the shoulder of Interstate 91 south recently, poised not to catch speeders but drivers out of compliance with the DMV.
The cruiser was equipped with an automatic license plate reader or LPR — a system of high-speed cameras that can take thousands of photographs per minute allowing users to run plates in real time.
The scans are checked against a database from the state Department of Motor Vehicles of vehicles that are reported stolen, have suspended registrations or are connected to an investigation, including missing persons.
All images are stored on a server maintained by state police for up to 90 days.
The use of LPRs by law enforcement is widespread across Connecticut. Wallingford was the first municipality to partner with state police to store local scans on the state server, a cost-savings measure also used by the Cheshire, Shelton and Guilford police departments.
While law enforcement has promoted LPRs as a public safety tool, privacy advocates on both sides of the political aisle have called the devices a tool of mass surveillance.
Inside McElroy’s cruiser, a laptop computer displayed photographs of vehicles and close-ups of their license plates. Often the LPR picked up letters or numbers in decals on the side of the vehicle, causing a misread.
The camera is so sensitive, McElroy said, it sometimes “reads” a patch of grass.
Once a day, a list of “hot plates” is uploaded into the system from the DMV.
If a match is made from a scan, police can do a live check through COLLECT, the state law enforcement database, and NCIC, the federal database for out-of-state plates, to see if the hit is still valid.
If it is, then a motor vehicle stop can be made.
Out-of-state plates won’t deliver a hit for a lapsed registration, only if the vehicle has been reported stolen or the owner is a wanted person. Tractor-trailers are checked against the national PRISM database.
As the license plate reader takes data in, it’s also pushing data out.
The device records the date, time and location of every license plate scan, even if there was no issue with the plate. The data is purged from the state system every 90 days, unless the record of the plate is part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
In one hour, McElroy pulled over four vehicles with expired registrations, one about every 15 minutes. He issued citations to three drivers, but let one go since the passenger was pregnant and on her way to an induced labor.
After he issued each ticket, he had to enter into the LPR system what enforcement action he took as a result of the hit.
“I wouldn’t say it’s changed day-to-day what I do,” McElroy said, “but it helps a lot as far as being visible on the highway.”
Being visible isn’t so good for catching speeders, he said, but it’s fine for what the LPR picks up.
“Now I can just sit here, and I have my cruise lights on so everybody knows I’m a police officer and visible, and I can still do enforcement,” he said.Use in Wallingford
The Wallingford Police Department started using an LPR in July. The department’s sole device is mounted on an SUV cruiser and has front- and rear-mounted cameras.
“There’s just not enough time in the day to take action against all of the hits that that LPR turns around,” Police Chief William Wright said during a Town Council meeting Aug. 20.
Wright said the cruiser with the LPR is assigned to an officer daily, and not always the same officer.
“It’s a tool that the officer can use, at his or her discretion, when they have time to practically do so in between calls,” he said.
It could be anywhere in town as the officer moves through his or her assigned zone.
“Parking in one place would not work for us,” he said. “If the cruiser is in operation, the device is in operation as well.”
State police have been using LPRs on cruisers since 2012 and have about 42 units in use currently, State Trooper Josue Dorelus said.
The brand is GeneTec Auto-Vu systems, purchased and implemented through a company called SecureWatch 24.
Wallingford can access records created by its LPR in the state system through two portals. Aside from the initial license plate scan, Wright said the police department would need “a legitimate law enforcement purpose” to access information in the database.Privacy concerns
LPRs have been called a tool of mass surveillance by privacy advocates on both sides of the political aisle.
A report released by the ACLU of Northern California in March found that eight Connecticut law enforcement agencies — Fairfield, Westport, Enfield, Wethersfield, Stratford, Trumbull, Norwalk and Southern Connecticut State University police — have provided residents’ location information collected by LPRs to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The documents were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in May 2018.
“There’s already a narrative in Connecticut,” said Melvin Medina, ACLU of Connecticut policy and advocacy director, “and a warranted fear of what effects the technology has on marginalized communities.”
The purchase and installation of Wallingford’s LPR system cost $17,000. It was covered by a $10,000 state Justice Assistance Grant and part of a $15,000 donation from Nucor Steel.
In January, the Town Council approved a bid waiver to purchase the device. Wright requested the waiver since he wanted to purchase the same system state police use.
"Could I put it into our budget next year and go about it through the normal course of business? Yes. But this opportunity presented itself." Wright said in January.
Medina said that using a bid waiver was not transparent. If Wright had included the LPR in his annual budget request, it would have been subject to review at the department’s public budget hearing. Each town department goes before the Town Council after submitting an itemized budget request to the mayor.
“We’re never starting on the right foot when law enforcement circumvents the democratic process and people aren’t aware of the technology being implemented in their very town,” he said.
Republican Craig Fishbein was the sole town councilor to vote against approving a bid waiver to purchase the LPR.
“I saw big government in that vote to allow a bid waiver, and the issues with the technology made it worse,” he said.
Fishbein, who’s also a member of the state House of Representatives for the 90th District, said he’s concerned about the lack of legislative oversight of the technology.
Since there are no state statutes or regulations on LPR use, he said, there’s no enforceable data retention period, nor laws prohibiting selective use of the device to target certain people or locations, such as polling places.
“How do we prevent this system from being used to monitor the doings and the goings-on of law-abiding citizens?” Fishbein said at the January Town Council meeting.
With electronic tolls still a possibility, Medina said legislative action is imperative to prevent “an ever-growing police surveillance state.”
“Despite all the evidence that this stuff happens, people are waiting for law enforcement to be fully transparent and open,” Medina said. “This technology is advancing at a very fast rate that the legislature can’t keep up with. We’ve been having this battle now for a number years. It falls on legislature to bring some oversight.”