Duluth Police Call License Plate Readers 'Invaluable'

Posted at: 07/23/2013 9:20 PM
Updated at: 07/23/2013 9:23 PM
By: Maarja Anderson

The Duluth Police Department has used Automatic License Plate Readers for two years, but the devices have come under new scrutiny since an American Civil Liberties Union report called the readers are a kind of invasion of privacy.

The department maintains the readers are invaluable, helping fight and prevent crime. Deputy Chief Mike Tusken said there is some misconception of what information the reader gets from the license plates. No name, no photo, and no criminal record pops up with a particular license plate.

Eyewitness News rode along with a patrol officer to see how the system works.

The department has two license plate readers attached to squad cars. Each squad has four cameras, two facing the front and two on the sides.

Patrol officer Chris Verhel said the system has made his job a little easier. Without the readers he randomly runs license plates, which would allow him to run 20-30 plates in a shift. With the readers he said he can run thousands of plates in one shift.

"It pops up and says what the reasoning is, the plate, what state it is and it takes a picture of the vehicle," explained Verhel.

The department said the readers are invaluable when used correctly. A reader once helped solve a child abduction case.

"It's almost like having another partner, an electronic partner, that tells you 'hey, this is a vehicle police are looking for,'" said Tusken.

The "electronic partner" ticks for each license plate read, unless the plate has a violation or a crime attached to it.

"If the plate reader picks up a plate that might have a hit on it, it will actually make a sound telling me if it's a low or a high alert," said Verhel.

Stolen vehicles or felony warrants are considered high alerts. Low alerts are more common and include expired registrations or a suspended driver's license. The department said they also have a "hot list" where they can enter specific plates associated with an investigation.