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Pros and Cons To Milwaukee Police Scanning License Plates

Marti Mikkelson

The Milwaukee Police Department has a relatively new tool for collecting and reviewing information about potential suspects - a reader.

The system includes a camera that can be mounted in squad cars and takes photos of license plates. They are entered into a huge database that can quickly produce information about the vehicle and its owner.

The Fire and Police Commission will vote tonight on potential rules governing the system’s use.

You may have heard of some law enforcement agencies mounting cameras near intersections, to photograph vehicles running red lights. Then the driver finds a ticket arriving in the mail.

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn says the system he wants his department using mounts readers in squad cars. The device records an image of each license plate it passes during patrols. The images enter into a huge database and it can return background information within seconds. Flynn says the system could help officers solve crimes.

“It’s a database of plates, and if we have a suspect vehicle and we need to know where it is, or if we’ve had a crime and we need to know who was parked near the scene of that crime, it gives us a lead that human intel couldn’t provide at any acceptable cost,” Flynn says.

Flynn assured the Fire and Police Commission that the system is not a form of “Big Brother.” But Commissioner Marisabel Cabrera was not convinced.

“My biggest concern with this particular system is that you’re saving tons and tons of data of people who have done nothing wrong or are even suspected of doing anything wrong and based on you just entering their license plate you can determine their patterns of daily activity and know everything they’re doing, where they’re going on this day, based on just their pattern of daily life,” Cabrera says.

Cabrera also raised concerns about how police officers could use or misuse the database of information; such as quickly learning a lot about the driver.

Captain David Salazar says officers would not be able to access any information without an incident number. Those are numbers police give, to reported crimes. Salazar says anyone caught abusing the system would be severely reprimanded.

“If you lie on an output search and you put in a false incident number that doesn’t exist or it’s another incident number that goes off to some other nonsense and it’s a nefarious reason, you’re going to go to prison,” Salazar says.

Salazar says the MPD would aggressively audit the database watching for potential misuse. Commission Vice-Chair Kathryn Hein says she found Wednesday’s meeting helpful.

“You always have concerns about privacy, but the comment about information is available on the internet in far more detail than this probably is with far less safeguards is a valid one,” Hein says.

The police department will meet with the commission again today. Officers will present members with a standard operating procedure for using the reader and database. The commission may then vote.

Other law enforcement agencies across the country have adopted the system. At least one has stopped, because of privacy concerns.