Cregan Newhouse patrols the streets of Seattle, chasing license plates.
Mounted atop his Parking Enforcement minivan sit three cameras, capturing every plate he passes and instantly checking them against a database of stolen cars and unpaid tickets.
On this cloudy afternoon, he finds just two stolen cars and no chronic parking offenders, a smaller haul than usual.
But his work does not go to waste. The thousands of photos are entered into a Seattle Police Department database where, for the three months before they are destroyed, they’ll be available for use in criminal investigations.
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To public officials, it is an innovative and effective multipurpose policing tool.
To skeptics, it is yet another way in which Big Brother is watching.
Automatic license-plate readers have been in the arsenal of large police departments for nearly a decade, but are now getting new scrutiny amid broader concerns about government surveillance.
The SPD is one of many state law-enforcement agencies that use the readers, including several in King County.
Even suburban Beaux Arts Village, population 299, is considering them.
In Seattle, which piloted the technology in 2006, public records indicate 12 police units collected about 7 million license-plate records last year, identifying 426 stolen cars and 3,768 vehicles with at least four unpaid parking tickets.
“This is something that is working,” SPD spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said. “It’s technology that makes law enforcement more efficient.”
Still, critics say the technology remains largely unregulated despite its increased use. They say the database allows police, if they search by license plate, to access where and when everyday citizens have been seen.
Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union published a report on license-plate readers called simply “You Are Being Tracked.”
“These devices got rolled out, thrown out there without any real thinking or policies, and it opened up a new world of concerns,” said Jamela Debelak of the ACLU’s Washington state branch.
Retention a concern
Debelak said the group is particularly concerned about the practice of retaining license-plate records for long periods of time and allowing officers to use them for investigations.
SPD officials say they keep the records for 90 days, in part to allow for parking offenders identified by the cameras to appeal.
The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs recommends 60-day retention.
Most police agencies in the state retain them for either 60 or 90 days, but there are exceptions. Tacoma says it doesn’t retain any records. Vancouver says it does for a year.
Seattle officials say they are especially sensitive because other proposals sparked concerns this year.
Mayor Mike McGinn ordered the SPD to ground its drone program in February, and the City Council voted the next month that more public input was needed before police activated cameras along the waterfront.
Ryan Calo, an assistant law professor at the University of Washington, said license-plate readers may be the biggest issue of all because they can randomly travel around the entire city, collecting information and storing it.
“This use of license-plate scanning differs from the way police contemplate using drones, and in many ways it’s probably worse,” Calo said. “This is more general, retroactive technology. They’re just driving around.”
Automatic license-plate readers (ALPRs), long common in England, came across the pond as anti-terrorism tools before spreading to police operations.
The SPD was one of several large United States police departments to try the technology in the mid-2000s, using federal grants.
The department piloted a stolen-car program in 2006 and added a parking-enforcement pilot in 2009.
Seattle police have not moved as quickly as in cities like New York City and Washington, D.C., which now rely heavily on license-plate readers.
But it has expanded its programs and tweaked its policies.
Among the new provisions is the 90-day retention policy; when the ACLU contacted the SPD in 2011, the department had been keeping the records indefinitely.
The SPD’s car program has seven patrol cars outfitted with ALPR cameras.
The parking program has five units (two minivans, two cars and a truck) that identify stolen cars, issue parking citations and, most of all, find vehicles whose owners have at least four parking tickets. Officials are allowed to immobilize those until the driver pays.
Newhouse works in one of the minivans, going with a partner to different areas of the city each day. He estimated that about one in every 1,200 vehicles they pass is stolen or the subject of four or more parking tickets.
Vancouver, meanwhile, has two ALPRs units operated by citizen volunteers, said spokeswoman Kim Kapp. They recovered 13 cars in the last five months of 2012, she said.
The Washington State Patrol uses ALPR cameras on the Seattle-Bainbridge Island ferry, at truck weigh stations and on patrol cars looking for stolen vehicles, said spokesman Bob Calkins.
The State Patrol deletes most license-plate records after 60 days, as recommended by state officials, Calkins said.
Officials with the police departments of Everett and Medina, as well as the Kitsap County sheriff, also reported deleting their ALPR records within 60 days.
The Spokane and Lynnwood police departments delete after 90 days.
The King, Pierce and Snohomish County sheriff’s offices and Bellevue, Renton, and University of Washington police departments said they don’t use the technology.
Limits on access
The ACLU is pushing for more oversight of license-plate readers. It wants limits on who can access the data, for what purpose and how long police can retain it.
It also wants clarity about whether the records are publicly accessible.
Washington, like most states, does not have any law about license-plate readers (the Legislature did approve a bill last year to regulate red-light cameras).
Moreover, SPD’s full policy on automatic license-plate readers is 132 words.
There is no mention of the department’s apparent policy of destroying records after 90 days. The central part reads that “employees are permitted to access ALPR data only when the data relates to a specific criminal investigation.”
Law-enforcement officials said Big Brother fears are overstated.
“I love the conspiracy theories,” said Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. “I wish we could do all the stuff they think we can do. Can you imagine the capability it would take to analyze years worth of plate data and determine who has been going where?”
Whitcomb, the SPD spokesman, said, “We appreciate that privacy concerns are a hot topic right now.
“We’ve already scrapped our drone program,” he said. “Our port security grant is in a holding pattern. And this is a program that’s been in use for years.”
McGinn deferred comment on license-plate readers to the police.
But Bruce Harrell, who chairs the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee, and is running to unseat McGinn, said he doesn’t think police should use the database for after-the-fact criminal investigations.
State Rep. David Taylor wants to pursue legislation regulating the technology.
“At the very least,” said Taylor, R-Moxee, “I’d hope that local law-enforcement agencies, if they’re going to do this, would at least have a discussion about it.”
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal