In a few months, Lakeland police will have extra eyes on the road when they’re looking for particular vehicles connected with AMBER alerts, missing seniors, fugitive suspects or stolen cars.
The “eyes” aren’t additional officers, they’re automatic license plate readers that will be placed at strategic spots around the city. Lakeland Police Chief Sam Taylor calls the high-tech devices a “force multiplier” for his department.
The City Commission approved a contract to lease 19 of the readers for $250 per camera per month — or $57,000 a year — plus $6,650 in installation costs, from Flock Safety. The solar-powered equipment won’t cost taxpayers anything; it will be paid for with proceeds from the city’s red light camera program.
The city currently has 18 red light cameras at 11 intersections. In the same contract, commissioners approved adding a 19th camera at North Florida Avenue and the southbound approach of East Parker Street. It also plans to relocate a camera from South Florida Avenue and Beacon Road to Kathleen Road and the westbound approach of George Jenkins Blvd.
Every violation is reviewed by a law enforcement officer before drivers are issued $158 tickets. Lakeland Police Sgt. Chad Mumbauer said the 14-year-old program has been very effective at changing driver behavior.
Assistant Police Chief Hans Lehman said the department hopes to have the Flock Falcon license plate readers installed in the next few months.
“We are still working through the contract and equipment being ordered so we have not established a firm timeline, other than sometime later this fall or hopefully by the end of the year,” Lehman said.
According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, an automatic license plate reader “scans, captures, and compares optical license plate information to vehicles associated with crimes or criminals. A match to a license plate results in an alert that notifies law enforcement officers. ALPRs can also store the digital image of the license plate, the time, date, location of the image capture, and the capturing camera information.”
While some applaud Lakeland’s stepped-up law-enforcement efforts, others question if how the license plate readers are used is a civil rights violation.
‘No expectation of privacy’ on public roads
Legal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have complained for at least a decade that license plate readers violate the average citizens’ right to privacy.
But Taylor told city commissioners in early October that this isn’t the case.
“There’s certainly no expectation of privacy on any public roadway,” Taylor said. “I don’t think we need to be afraid of cameras. We need to assume really, in any public area, that we’re being recorded — you’re being recorded right now. So if you’re on the road, in a retail operation, certainly there’s cameras. And so we’re kind of operating under the same auspices.”
Taylor said it is a tool he would have liked to have had when he was a homicide detective, adding that it’s the same thing as the dashboard-mounted cameras LPD officers have had in their patrol cars for the last year. The only difference is that these will be in fixed positions. The chief added that this puts eyes on the road when officers aren’t there.
“They are a force multiplier, and they help us in situations where if we have some sort of a crime or some sort of situation, we go to a camera. Where there’s not an officer, there is a camera,” Taylor said. “We can go back and pull information. They tell us it’s a certain make, model car that left. The officers can go back … and look for their car… Police officers have the right now to run your tag. You know, it’s just being automated.”
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office already has them and has been using them for several years.
PCSO spokeswoman Carrie Hortsman declined to give any information on how many cameras they use or their locations.
“Information about investigative tools that we use is exempt from public record. Additionally, your request includes seeking specific information about security and surveillance techniques, which is also exempt from public record,” Hortsman said.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has set forth guidelines for the use of ALPRs, as their implementation has grown in Florida in the last decade, particularly in large cities like Miami, Jacksonville, Tampa and Orlando.
“ALPRs assist law enforcement agencies in detection, identification and recovery of stolen vehicles, wanted persons, missing and/or endangered children/adults, and persons who have committed serious and violent crimes,” its website reads. “ALPR data can help detectives develop and pursue leads in criminal investigations by assisting in locating suspects, witnesses, and victims by identifying vehicles in the vicinity at the time of the crime.”
FDLE states that stored ALPR data does not include any personal identifying information of individuals associated with the license plate.
“Obtaining persons associated with license plate information requires a separate, legally authorized, inquiry to another restricted-access database,” the FDLE website states. “Stored data can be used as part of a criminal investigation to determine the location of a known vehicle. An example is when stored LPR data is used to locate a potential route of travel of a vehicle during an AMBER Alert.
FDLE officials say they want to be good stewards and balance policy and privacy. The agency’s guidelines include:
- ALPRs and data generated by ALPRs shall be used only for a criminal justice purpose.
- ALPR scanning is limited to vehicles exposed to public view, for example plates of vehicles traveling or parked on any street or highway or other public property, or visible from a place or location at which a law enforcement officer is lawfully present.
Applause and jeers
Lakeland residents who responded to a Facebook post asking for comments were split on the issue on Tuesday.
“I have nothing to hide, so scan away,” said Melissa Herndon-Jones.
Mike Reynolds said there are valid “pro” and “con” arguments, and everyone will be pretty firm in their position on this issue.
“For me, the good far outweighs any potential for loss of privacy,” Reynolds said. “I think the government needs to be very clear about the purpose and use of these devices, and about how long any information gathered would be stored and who would have access to this data. Once those concerns have been addressed, I support installation and proper use by the authorities. I think anyone who has had their car stolen, their child run away, their senior citizen get lost, etc.. would agree, at least for the moment.”
David Allen Guest said law enforcement has had this technology in their cars for some time. “If anyone is concerned with tracking, better turn in their iPhone,” he said.
Carol Coleman said law enforcement can track people using their phones and other means.
“There is GPS tracking in most cars now, your credit card is tracked (almost no one pays with cash anymore), and there are now cameras everywhere (on almost every house and every business),” Coleman said. “So, you are always being monitored, but it can take time to gather all that data. The license plate readers just make it faster for law enforcement to solve crimes in progress, so that they might be able to prevent further harm to citizens.”
Michelle Heisig Montero said law enforcement has to stay one step ahead of criminals.
“People who gripe about invasion of privacy will rethink that stance when a criminal steals a car and commits a violent crime against them or someone they love … when it could have possibly been avoided by this new device and the advancement in technology,” Montero said. “Crime is out of control and we need to deploy every piece of tech we can.”
But Josh Douglas called it a “horrible invasion of privacy” and could lead to innocent people being charged with a crime they didn’t commit, simply because they were in the vicinity of the crime.
“People who give up liberty for a false sense of security … I think there is a famous quote about that,” Douglas said. “I don’t have to like or support government spying on its residents. Just because you haven’t done anything doesn’t mean you can’t be accused of something just based on where you were when a crime happened. Sorry, but more government is never the answer, in my opinion.”
Terry Scarangella agreed.
“I think it should be a choice by the owner of the plate,” Scarangella said. “I feel this is another way to track you by the government (disguised) as a helping aid.”
Mike Kindle of Mulberry said it is yet another form of big government overreach.
“Let’s just continue to let them whittle away at our rights and privacy,” Kindle said. “Soon there will be none of either.”
Despite the cameras’ crime-fighting capabilities, the American Civil Liberties Union has long complained about automatic license plate readers and their possible misuses — calling them “a nationwide mass-surveillance dragnet.”
“We don’t find every use of ALPRs objectionable. For example, we do not generally object to using them to check license plates against lists of stolen cars, for AMBER Alerts, or for toll collection, provided they are deployed and used fairly and subject to proper checks and balances, such as ensuring devices are not disproportionately deployed in low-income communities and communities of color, and that the ‘hot lists’ they are run against are legitimate and up to date,” ACLU Senior Policy Counsel Chad Marlow stated in February. “But there’s no reason the technology should be used to create comprehensive records of everybody’s comings and goings — and that is precisely what ALPR databases like Flock’s are doing. In our country, the government should not be tracking us unless it has individualized suspicion that we’re engaged in wrongdoing.”
Marlow urged residents to tell their city commissioners to vote against the Flock Safety license plate readers — the ones the Lakeland City Commission approved earlier this month.
“From Pasadena, California to Lexington, Kentucky to Menasha, Wisconsin, to Newark, New Jersey, the surveillance company Flock Safety is blanketing American cities with dangerously powerful and unregulated automatic license plate recognition cameras,” Marlow said. “While license plate readers have been around for some time, Flock is the first to create a nationwide mass-surveillance system out of its customers’ cameras.”
Marlow called the nationwide mass-surveillance system “of Orwellian scope,” referring to George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” about totalitarianism, mass surveillance and repressive authority on behavior.
Marlow said the company’s goal is to expand to “every city in the United States.” Its cameras are already in use in more than 2,000 cities in at least 42 states.
“Flock is building a giant camera network that records people’s comings and goings across the nation, and then makes that data available for search by any of its law enforcement customers,” Marlow said. “Such a system provides even small-town sheriffs access to a sweeping and powerful mass-surveillance tool, and allows big actors like federal agencies and large urban police departments to access the comings and goings of vehicles in even the smallest of towns.”
In 2019, the ACLU obtained records that showed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was using mass location surveillance to target immigrants and local governments in California were helping — feeding their residents’ personal information to ICE, even when it violated local privacy laws or sanctuary policies.
More than 9,000 ICE officers gained access to one license plate reader system under a $6.1 million contract, providing ICE with access to more than 5 billion data points of location information collected by private businesses, like insurance companies and parking lots, and could gain access to an additional 1.5 billion records collected by law enforcement agencies.
More than 80 local law enforcement agencies, from over a dozen states, agreed to share license plate location information with ICE. Emails obtained by the ACLU showed local police handing driver information over to ICE informally, violating local law and ICE policies.
“The ACLU is urging an immediate end to this information sharing,” the organization said in 2019. “Many communities have license plate readers: high-speed cameras mounted on police cars, road signs, or bridges that can photograph every passing license plate. Together with time, date, and location coordinates, the information is stored for years, generating a literal and intimate roadmap of people’s private lives.”
ACLU officials urged legislation in three areas:
- Data Retention – data should be deleted after a specified period of time;
- Data Sharing/Use by Others – each community’s ALPR system should be restricted to local use;
- And Database Use – Out of date lists could subject anyone living in or visiting your town to unjustified arrest and detention.
“We continue to believe that using Flock cameras should be opposed outright,” they state. “But where that battle can’t be won, then any system should at least be confined to the community itself and not made part of a national and international mass-surveillance system.”
Chief Taylor said the Lakeland Police Department is sensitive to the privacy issue.
“We don’t want to invade anyone’s privacy,” Taylor said.
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