In June 2013, the Honolulu Police Department paid $238,988  for 12 automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) to help it recover stolen cars and solve other crimes.

A year later, the department is still assessing the effectiveness of its purchase, and there are concerns about whether the technology is spying on innocent citizens under the guise of law enforcement.

ALPRs are cameras that take pictures of license plates on passing cars to compare with a “hot list,” or database of plates of interest. HPD’s “hot list” is updated at the beginning of every shift and includes plates on stolen vehicles or vehicles believed to be connected to a crime.

honolulu police car

A Honolulu police cruiser.

Nick Grube/Civil Beat

HPD says it has over 100 officers trained to use the ALPRs. They ride in one of the nine marked and unmarked vehicles with mounted ALPRs or use one of three portable ALPRs.

When a “hot list” plate is detected, the police officer notifies the Communications Division, which compares the plate to information in the HPD database. If the plate belongs to a stolen vehicle or has been linked to a missing person or some criminal act, dispatch informs officers who can engage a pursuit.

An HPD spokeswoman told Civil Beat that within the past 90 days, ALPRs helped recover 27 stolen license plates, 16 stolen vehicles and five other vehicles posted on all-points-bulletins.

The department is still assessing the effectiveness of the new equipment and has not indicated whether it will purchase additional units.

HPD’s ALPRs are manufactured by Vigilant Solutions, a California company specializing in law enforcement technology.

In its contract with HPD, Vigilant Solutions says that its ALPRs capture the license plates of cars traveling as fast as 120 mph and at a maximum distance of 60 feet away.  The cameras are touted to be 90 percent accurate with a 95 percent success rate when it comes to capturing a license plate.

The ACLU is less concerned about the how quick the camera snaps a picture and more concerned with the collection of personal information.  The organization has requested records regarding the equipment from various police departments.

“Automatic license plate readers have the potential to create permanent records of virtually everywhere any of us has driven.” — ACLU 

The cameras snap pictures and collect information regardless of whether a particular vehicle is associated with a crime. Where the data is stored and who has access to it is at the center of this debate.

The HPD has an ALPR policy statement that outlines the rules and operational procedures for using the cameras. HPD stores license plate pictures and information in a database in a “Federal Bureau of Investigation-certified data storage location,” according to the policy statement.

The ACLU says the cameras encourage unnecessary tracking of innocent people and the data collection threatens privacy.

On its website the organization writes, “Automatic license plate readers have the potential to create permanent records of virtually everywhere any of us has driven, radically transforming the consequences of leaving home to pursue private life, and opening up many opportunities for abuse. The tracking of people’s location constitutes a significant invasion of privacy.”

HPD acknowledges this privacy concern in its ALPR policy document, stating, “The goal is to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of (the department’s) public safety efforts in a manner that safeguards the privacy concerns of law abiding citizens.”

Privacy concerns in the wake of ALPRs are being felt nationwide. Police departments in San Diego, Atlanta and Greenwich, Connecticut, to name a few, are using this technology and local newspapers and media are raising questions about a possible invasion of privacy.

Hawaii drivers’ data can be accessed and shared within HPD pending approval from the department’s “ALPR Administration,” according to the policy statement. The chief of police can also decide to share the information with other law enforcement agencies. The data is purged every 90 days.

HPD’s data retention period is in the middle of a vast range. For example, the Minnesota State Patrol purges data every 48 hours while the Jersey City Police Department deletes data every five years, according to records obtained by the ACLU.

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