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Austin OKs an automated license plate reader program

Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
/
KUT

Austin City Council approved a revival of a police department program to use license plate scanners on police cruisers and at fixed points throughout the city.

The council on Thursday agreed on a one-year pilot program to reinstate the readers, which passively scan license plates in the hopes of assisting police in tracking down stolen vehicles, missing children and people who have felony warrants. The approval, in a 8-3 vote, capped off weeks of negotiations over the program, which opponents argued presents privacy issues.

Plate readers take millions of snapshots of license plates and store those scans in a database. If law enforcement is looking for a specific vehicle — if a car is stolen or if a plate has been ID’d in an Amber Alert — it can be tracked through a so-called hot list of suspected vehicles and, ideally, stopped.

Privacy advocates worry that database could be compromised or misused. They argued the readers could be used to track families seeking gender-affirming care for their kids or people seeking an abortion, or to track down undocumented immigrants. The readers are used by other law enforcement agencies in the Austin area, including the Austin Regional Intelligence Center, a Department of Homeland Security center that serves as a data hub for Central Texas law enforcement.

Research has shown Black, Latino and low-income communities have been disproportionately affected by the use of the devices in some cities.

Council Member Chito Vela, who ultimately opposed the resolution, pushed to set the retention period for the data to three minutes, a timeframe that's been endorsed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a national nonprofit that advocates for digital privacy, and is used in New Hampshire. The short retention period would prevent the creation of a searchable database for officers.

"Data that cannot be saved cannot be abused," Vela said.

Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon argued a 30-day retention period, which was adopted, would be more helpful to investigators with cases in which a suspect is unknown. He said officers using the devices previously didn't misuse data, and he pledged to follow the guidelines in the resolution, which would require an audit and quarterly checkups in the yearlong pilot.

"I feel very confident that we will use it in the right way and be able to show the community and council that we're using it in the right way," he said. "But I would hate that we wouldn't use it to solve some of these really major crimes that we have going on and really use technology to help keep this community safe."

Ahead of the vote, Kevin Welch with the Austin chapter of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said that APD will still have to turn over data to federal or state authorities — even if the city itself has pledged not to prosecute instances of people seeking abortion or to cooperate with immigration investigations.

“There’s nothing preventing one of the other law enforcement agencies in the area who does consider these activities a crime from attempting to prosecute based on that data," he said. "You can say all you want that the city is not going to prosecute this, but if we get a lawful request from a state or federal agency asking for that data, we have to turn it over."

The resolution did include a framework to share data with other agencies, including a stipulation that APD must establish an agreement and the requesting agency must abide by the city's policies to not prosecute people seeking abortions or investigate immigration status. The resolution also requires APD to document each instance of sharing with the Office of Police Oversight. Still, the department could be forced to hand over data under a court order.

The previous license plate reader program ran from 2016 to 2021, when the Austin City Council voted to discontinue the program as it restructured the police department in the wake of George Floyd's and Mike Ramos' deaths.

Under that program, APD shared its data to more than 800 law enforcement agencies through its contractor's database, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At its peak, APD plate readers scanned more than 20 million license plates in a year. The program's so-called hit rate — when a scan identifies a vehicle connected to a possible crime — averaged 0.13% in its first four years, according to data from the Austin Police Department.

Vela and Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, who first rolled out a plan to reinstate the program back in June, negotiated the resolution for weeks. Ahead of the vote, Kelly said she hoped the program would serve as a model for other cities.

"I really feel confident that our community can bring back this program and make it work the correct way," she said.

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Copyright 2022 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Andrew Weber is a freelance reporter and associate editor for KUT News. A graduate of St. Edward's University with a degree in English, Andrew has previously interned with The Texas Tribune, The Austin American-Statesman and KOOP Radio.