The Oklahoma City Police Department soon could become the latest state law enforcement agency to use a system that instantly scans license plates to determine whether a vehicle has been stolen, used in a crime or involved in a missing person's case.
The Oklahoma City Council voted Tuesday to authorize city staff to negotiate the purchase of up to eight of the systems, which use a camera and a computer to check license plate numbers against those flagged in law enforcement databases.
The city expects to purchase the systems from Missouri-based TurnKey Mobile, but the terms and exact equipment have not yet been determined.
The Oklahoma County sheriff's office and Shawnee police are among law enforcement agencies in Oklahoma that already use similar systems.
What technology does
The license plate scanning systems give law enforcement officers information similar to what they would get about a vehicle if they or a dispatcher used their own computer to look up a license plate number. But the systems can scan about 2,000 license plates per minute — essentially any license plate that comes within view of the camera.
“It will allow the officer to be more effective in a very short amount of time in looking for anything involving any of those types of situations,” said police Capt. Dexter Nelson, a department spokesman.
Onboard computers signal the officer if the system gets a hit.
Systems have stirred controversy
License plate scanning technology has proved to be controversial because of privacy concerns. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit in federal court in Massachusetts, seeking records from the U.S. Justice and Homeland Security departments on the government's use of the technology.
The suit, filed in September, is in response to the government not releasing them to the ACLU in response to a request made for this summer. In a news release, ACLU officials cited concerns with how the government was using, storing and sharing the information involved with the systems.
Law enforcement officials have responded by pointing out that only publicly available information is searched by the systems. Nelson added that the alerts provided by the system in most cases don't even provide as much information as if the officer stopped to search a license plate number himself.
“This doesn't even tell the officer the registration information,” Nelson said. “What the officer is doing when he pulls up behind you and he runs your tag ... he gets information back that tells him who the registered owner is on the vehicle and whether or not there's insurance on the vehicle. This system doesn't do that.”
Nelson also said city officers will have other checks to go through after an alert comes across to verify its validity.
Police officials have not decided yet how to use or where to deploy the systems because the systems haven't been purchased, Nelson added.
Before voting with the rest of his colleagues to approve the purchase negotiation, Ward 8 Councilman Pat Ryan urged police officials to prioritize data security when they begin using the system, making sure anything collected stays in police hands.
“I understand that a lot of the information that they'll get is public already, but it's not available in as quick and as easy a form,” he said.