Big brother or big bother? Portland police defend license plate cameras

PORTLAND, Ore. - Smile!

Or don't. It doesn't matter - your car is probably on camera either way.

If you live in Portland, the odds are high indeed that the police have captured and recorded your license plate number and location numerous times in the last few years.

Exactly how it's captured and what's done with that record was the subject of a news conference at the Eastbank Esplande on Thursday.

Officer Garrett Dow said the Portland Police Bureau has more than three million reads on file since they implemented a system in 2008 that snaps photos of license plates.

"The intent of the system is not to track people," Dow said. "The intent of the system is to track crime, and it does so very effectively."

The $80,000 license-plate readers consist of four separate cameras with night-vision ability mounted to 16 of the Portland Police Bureau's 300 cars. The cars with readers are spread evenly across the districts, and are kept in operation 24 hours a day.

The readers automatically scan the plate numbers of vehicles they encounter and match those against a database of cars the police are actively searching for. If there's a match, officers are alerted. If there's not, the scan goes into an ever-growing database.

Police call it an extremely effective tool for fighting crime. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union call it an extremely effective tool for tracking citizens' whereabouts.

"We're very concerned that it's a very broad net for some very narrow purposes," said Becky Straus, the legislative director for ACLU of Oregon. "It's really fundamentally changing the way that we deal with law enforcement. The approach is, we must collect it all in case we need it later."

The ACLU wants police to immediately delete the records of cars not linked to a crime on initial scan.

Sgt. Pete Simpson said Portland police were sensitive to privacy concerns when they developed their internal policy regulating how the technology can be used.

"The system and our policy is set up so that you can't look into (the database) unless you're investigating a criminal incident," Simpson said. "Our policy is very strict and very specific to that because we wanted to address any issues of privacy concerns, of fishing expeditions or of just random searches.

"One piece of the policy specifically we worked with the ACLU on is going to religious gatherings or religious events. It's expressly forbidden in our policy to send one of these cars there for the purposes of gathering information. Certainly in a big city you have people driving by churches all the time. It doesn't mean you have to turn it off when you go by a church, but it means if there is a big rally on the waterfront, we're not going to send a plate-reader car to go through the parking lot for intelligence purposes."

Straus said the police bureau did work with the ACLU as it wrote the policy about a year ago, but hasn't talked much about it since. She said it's still far too easy to order a car to pass by a specific religious institution or organization on a regular basis to collect information.

She also said the four years the bureau keeps records in its database - which Simpson said is the shortest retention time in the state - is too long.

"We think we should be measuring retention in days, not years," Straus said.

Still, even the ACLU acknowledges the readers' utility, which goes beyond the obvious purposes of things like locating felony suspects and Amber Alerts.

Dow said 30 percent of stolen cars recovered recently have been thanks to the new technology, and he has a laundry list of other success stories.

There's the guy who was wanted on 88 counts of identity theft who was found - with methamphetamine in his possession - three days after his plate went into the system.

There's the department's stolen car-recovery time, which has dipped from an average of 10 days to an average of four.

And there's the fact police can throw in the towel on high-speed chases if they feel there's a risk to public safety.

"We have had several cases where we have had a vehicle fail to stop for the police, we begin to chase, we get the license plate number of the car, we stop chasing," Dow said. "The systems can tell us where we have scanned their plate parked on the street recently. We dispatch an officer and wait and sure enough, here comes the car. They park in the driveway, we take them into custody.

"We didn't have to risk the public chasing them around; we didn't have to risk the officers or the suspect. So, we're finishing off the pursuit without a pursuit."

Still, Straus thinks an important line has been crossed.

"The primary concern here is that this is location data. It's prime data on where innocent Oregonians are traveling," she said.

"Ultimately when people are under the impression that they are under constant surveillance, it starts to change the relationship between people and their government and people in public spaces."