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Cape Girardeau police use cameras to collect license plate numbers

Friday, May 3, 2013

Cape Girardeau Police Department public information officer Darin Hickey demonstrates the department’s automated license plate recognition technology Thursday. The department has one car equipped with three license plate reading cameras. The cameras capture images of motorists’ license plates and the make and model of their vehicles.
(Laura Simon) [Order this photo]
A specially equipped patrol cruiser on the streets of Cape Girardeau has the city's police department taking a step forward in using technology to solve crimes. But in some places where it's been used, the new gadget has led to concerns about degrading civil liberties.

For the last seven months, a police car with a group of high-speed cameras attached to its roof captures photographs of nearly every vehicle and its license plate along a traveled route. The photographs appear in an instant on a laptop computer inside the car. Each vehicle's license plate number is sent into a national database that only law enforcement can access, along with the time and location the plate was recorded. The computer system sounds an alarm within seconds if the plate is tagged in the database as belonging to someone with an active warrant or felony criminal history, if the car or plates are suspected stolen or if the plate number is part of an active investigation or Amber Alert. In the last month, the department has scanned more than 27,000 license plates using its automatic plate number recognition technology system.

"Investigatively, it can help us in a way like no other," said patrolman Darin Hickey, the department's public information officer.

Cape Girardeau police have used the system in more than 15 cases that led to arrests. The system also has been used as an aide to identify potential suspects and witnesses in the investigation of a Dec. 16 deadly shooting at The Spot nightclub on South Sprigg Street.

Interim police chief Roger Fields told the Cape Girardeau City Council on Friday during a retreat that a goal for the department is to have the patrol car in use on the street all the time, and when the technology can be used to assist other departments, all the better.

One of three license plate reader cameras attached to a Cape Girardeau Police Department patrol car.
(Laura Simon)
As an example, the system was used in October when a 5-year-old girl was abducted in Poplar Bluff, Mo. Police had a potential suspect and his license plate number, but no idea of his location. He was believed to be on the move. The cruiser with the system was placed on Interstate 55 in hopes the suspect's vehicle would be picked up if it passed.

Reports of thefts from local businesses and gas from convenience stories also have been compiled with the system, according to Hickey, and suspects have been identified and arrested.

A grant from the Missouri Police Chiefs Association bought the equipment last year and sent it into the hands of law enforcement in cities such as Cape Girardeau, Springfield, St. Charles and Joplin.

Use of the technology has grown exponentially in recent years, drawing some criticism of privacy invasion. By some recent estimates, thousands of police departments across the country are using the technology in some form. Many, as in Cape Girardeau, have cameras on one or more patrol cars. Others have stationary cameras installed in high-traffic areas.

The American Civil Liberties Union has been a vocal opponent of the technology. In 2012, the ACLU sent more than 500 public records requests to agencies ranging in size from local police departments to the Department of Justice asking how the technology was being used and what was being done with the recorded data. When some of the requests went unfilled, the organization sued, alleging the technology was allowing police to unjustly track people who did not commit crimes.

Hickey called the system "not 100 percent foolproof."

"It does require the officer to do checkups after the fact," he said.

He pointed out the system does not detect from what state a plate is issued, and said it also does not alert officers to plates attached to drivers with revoked or suspended licenses or drivers who might have other outstanding misdemeanors.

Hickey said he knows about the resistance police have encountered using the system in other Missouri cities.

"People near St. Louis thought it was tracking individuals who didn't commit crimes and giving police instantaneous access to everyone's driver's license information," he said. "They felt it was too much access. But [other departments] weren't doing that, and we are not using it for that. It's strictly an investigative tool."

Councilman John Voss watched Hickey demonstrate the technology during the council's annual retreat.

"I think it's a great investment in technology for our law enforcement officers," Voss said Thursday. "It will help us track down leads on major cases."

Voss mostly rejected the idea that the use of the system is an invasion of privacy.

"Law-abiding citizens shouldn't have anything to worry about," he said. "It will be their friend in a time of need."

The police department doesn't have the manpower to track information for every scan of a plate, Voss said, which should allay some privacy concerns. Still, he said, honest use of the system should be taken seriously.

"Unless there is a justified reason, we shouldn't be looking at what John Q. Public has been up to," Voss said. "But it's information that I think law enforcement has proven is invaluable to solving crimes when they have it at their disposal."

Some police departments have policies allowing them to retain data for only a certain amount of time. Cape Girardeau does not, but Hickey said the computer being used falls under city and department computer policy, which is very detailed in how it can be used and for what purpose. Officers cannot manipulate any information they download from the system for use in an investigation or to turn in for court evidence.

The database in which all of the scanned information is sent and set up for use by other law enforcement agencies is in Virginia. The length of time the data is stored is indefinite. Other parties, such as private investigators, towing companies and bail bondsmen, can enter data if they have purchased their own license plate scanning equipment, but they can't access the data for their own use -- only law enforcement can, Hickey said. The benefit is if police eventually arrest someone the party has been trying to locate.

The department also is learning to use other technologies.

A facial-recognition system being tested recently was granted by the Missouri Sheriff's Association. With the technology, Cape Girardeau police use software to compare booking photos with photos of possible suspects from surveillance cameras, Hickey said. Another system, Leads Online, requires operators of stores and services that deal in secondhand sales to enter descriptions of items they buy and to share that information with police.

"Detectives have had pretty good luck recovering stolen items with it," Hickey said.

An e-ticketing system is slated to roll out in the department before the end of this year. With that technology, patrol officers will be able to scan driver's licenses with a device when they stop vehicles and issue a paper ticket in seconds. The device will contain a list of municipal ordinances. Officers will select the ordinance violated to be printed on the ticket and give the ticket to the offender while information is sent electronically to the municipal court. The system will be paid for with money from the city's Innovation Fund, which receives a portion of revenue the city takes in from the Isle Casino Cape Girardeau.



Pertinent address:

40 S. Sprigg St., Cape Girardeau, Mo.

401 Independence St., Cape Girardeau, Mo.

Functions of automatic plate number recognition system

* Photographs all license plates within the capabilities of camera's reach

* Enters the photographs into a database with a timestamp and location information

* Alerts officers immediately to plates tagged in investigations, Amber Alerts, or as belonging to a convicted felon or someone with an active warrant

* Law enforcement can map plates that have been picked up by the system

* Information gathered through a database search can be used in investigations and as court evidence

* Law enforcement agencies with systems in use have exclusive access to database

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Speaking of cameras, several Cape stop lights now have cameras mounted on them. I must have missed the 'news' informing the public about their purpose.

-- Posted by persnickety on Fri, May 3, 2013, at 5:06 AM

They're used to monitor traffic at intersections and changed the lights accordingly is my understanding.

-- Posted by FreedomFadingFast on Fri, May 3, 2013, at 6:15 AM

I will admit it, this technology bothers me. However, what bothers me more, is the society we have allowed ourselves to become.

-- Posted by GREYWOLF on Fri, May 3, 2013, at 6:46 AM

American society has brought this on themselves GREYWOLF. This is a good tool that will be helpful in fighting all levels of crime. We live in a violent Nation that is a matter of record goes to show you how much our society has decayed.

-- Posted by swampeastmissouri on Fri, May 3, 2013, at 7:04 AM

They're not exactly cameras. They detect changes in contrast at the intersection which determines what lights to turn green and what lights to turn red. More efficient than sensors under the pavement. They're not hooked to anything but the stoplight control box, and they don't take pictures.

-- Posted by Marion_Morrison on Fri, May 3, 2013, at 7:05 AM

There must not be one at Rt K and Mount Auburn. Southbound Mt Auburn only let's 4-5 vehicles through and traffic backs way up and 1-2 when the lady in the SUV is texting. This may be a MODOT light,though.

-- Posted by bothedog on Fri, May 3, 2013, at 7:57 AM

It's gonna get to the point where a criminal can't make a decent living and will have to go on disability.

-- Posted by thewonder on Fri, May 3, 2013, at 8:50 AM

Anything that helps capture real criminals and helps to locate an abducted child, then I am for it. I don't feel it hinders my freedom. Having my car photographed is not going to make me not live my life. I have my car I'D and tagged to park at work. It let's security know who's car is parked there late at night and why.

-- Posted by That's a Fact! on Fri, May 3, 2013, at 9:28 AM


-- Posted by Yankee Station on Fri, May 3, 2013, at 9:36 AM

bo: That light you are talking about is pitiful. That texting lady in the SUV must be there all the time. Isn't it legal in MO to text while driving if you are over 21?

-- Posted by left turn on Fri, May 3, 2013, at 9:38 AM

BUT WAIT! Couldn't this be used to build a database and be used to establish a police state? Where is the Missouri General Assembly? Where are the commercials on KFVS from the billionaire in St. Louis raking Governor Nixon over the coals for this? Heaven knows how far this could go. Why they may be selling these license plate numbers to the feds to help them confiscate cars. We need a constitutional convention! REVOLUTION! Just to point out how hypocritical it has been for our illustrious lawmakers in Jeff. City to spend so much of our tax money chasing red herring and defunding the DMV over the conceal and carry crisis they manufactured.

-- Posted by foxtrot007 on Fri, May 3, 2013, at 10:27 AM

Law abiding citizens shouldn't have anything to worry about if the govt puts a camera in your home. That doesn't mean the govt should be allowed to do it. We all know they will compile and keep info on everybody. That is wrong. Period. If the tech only gives alerts, that's fine. But compiling and keeping info should be illegal. I don't want Big Brother tracking me, even if I'm not breaking the law.

-- Posted by heye1967 on Fri, May 3, 2013, at 11:41 AM

heye1967: They already have your information for years. Nothing to hide you should be fine. We are in a different era now we have over 316 million population in this country over 11 million plus illegals majority of them from third world counties.

-- Posted by swampeastmissouri on Fri, May 3, 2013, at 11:45 AM

Lets just roll over and let them take all of our rights, because its for our own good. You people crack me up.

-- Posted by le888 on Fri, May 3, 2013, at 3:34 PM

I have many issues with the use of these cameras. This is simply one more step towards a coming police state as previously posted by foxtrot007.

In other words, where does this stop!? We have already given the police too much power and, they have taken too much as well. Perhaps the time has come to police, the police!

-- Posted by GREYWOLF on Fri, May 3, 2013, at 3:58 PM

If you are not breaking the law, you shouldn't have anything to worry about.

-- Posted by improvisational on Fri, May 3, 2013, at 6:51 PM

Where are all the whiney politicians in this matter. This country is becoming a police state and people just roll over and take it. Come on legislature attack this issue just like you attacked the DOR.

"If you are not breaking the law, you shouldn't have anything to worry about."

They do not have a right to anything even if I am doing nothing !

-- Posted by 3forone on Fri, May 3, 2013, at 9:08 PM

" if you're not breaking the law you have nothing to worry about." Wasn't that long ago that saying a prayer at graduation was legal. The way this government redefines words, rather than passing laws approved by the majority, leads me to hunker down even more. I should delete this post but I've already typed it so it doesn't matter. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean there aren't people out to control you.

-- Posted by yy4me on Fri, May 3, 2013, at 9:13 PM

Law abiding citizens have nothing to worry about, were you are going, were you live, do you own a gun etc. I bet that is what Adolf Hitler told the people of Germany.

-- Posted by ssinteriors on Sat, May 4, 2013, at 7:33 AM

About darn time!

-- Posted by Beaker on Sat, May 4, 2013, at 10:49 AM

This has very little to do with "keeping people safe" and everything to do with squeezing/fleecing the public for every single cent they can get to generate revenue. Total garbage Cape.

-- Posted by LibertyNeverDies on Sat, May 4, 2013, at 12:26 PM

Councilman Voss said, "if you're not doing anything wrong then you have nothing to hide."

I always wondered who that naked guy was at the city council meetings.

-- Posted by Simon Jester on Sat, May 4, 2013, at 1:05 PM

So How much money is has been spent from the boat on programs and YES Data by the City what are they going to do with this Data Base

-- Posted by falcon2412 on Sat, May 4, 2013, at 6:14 PM

Quite a few conspiracy theorists on here. Driving a car is a privilege, not a right. You are out in public, so the expectation of privacy is diminished. Seems like some of you like to complain just to have something to do. I'm all for cameras on police cruisers. If it were up to me, we'd have traffic cameras throughout major traffic areas of the city to deter traffic. I get sick of driving home on broadway adjacent to Capaha park and having everyone speeding. The speed limit is 25, yet people are easily exceeding that. This is the same area where the college girl was killed and a kid i know was hit on his motorcycle and lost 3 toes and maybe the ability to walk. Traffic cameras could easily helo prevent this. They have them in Japan, and it works there. People will learn to drive the speed limit after they get an expensive ticket in the mail.

-- Posted by chaffeemp on Sat, May 4, 2013, at 9:40 PM

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