COLUMBIA — A Columbia police proposal to buy a high-tech device that can scan license plates and gather data has again heightened city leaders' concerns about privacy rights.
At a regular meeting on Sept. 8, Columbia City Council members discussed a Columbia Police Department report about the use of the Mobile Plate Hunter-900. Columbia police tested the device from mid-June to mid-July. The Boone County Sheriff’s Department also conducted a 30-day trial with one of the devices beginning May 12.
Both agencies were so impressed they want to purchase one at a cost of roughly $20,000.
The Mobile Plate Hunter can scan as many as 3,000 license plates per hour and has the ability to scan the plate of an automobile traveling 70 miles per hour in the opposite direction. It also uses an infrared camera so that license plates can be scanned at night.
That's exactly what is bothering some council members: the sheer quantity and storage of the data. It's not the first time the council has expressed concerns about surveillance devices and how they might affect the civil liberties of Columbia residents. The council rejected a measure in April that would have allowed the installation of surveillance cameras at various locations downtown, citing concerns over residents' civil liberties.
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala was among the council members who expressed reservations about storing license plate data after it has been collected. Though he described the device as “useful technology,” he questioned how the data would be stored once collected.
“If it’s used in the right way for the right reasons, I think it's something we really want and could use,” Skala said. But, he added, “There is potential for abuse.”
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser, who described herself as an “avid supporter” of police during the meeting, said she was concerned about the amount of data that can be collected by the device. The fact that it can record the date, time and location of drivers who were in engaged in no wrongdoing also raised concerns for her.
“I have a problem with government-owned cameras that are surveying people just to survey them,” Nauser said.
Columbia Police Officer Cathy Dodd, a member of the Street Crimes Unit that tested the device, said police were able to make more than 20 arrests and recover one stolen vehicle during the trial period.
Sheriff’s Department Capt. Chad Martin said the department made six arrests and recovered five stolen license plates. He said that though the sheriff's deputies had the device for 30 days, the trial was cut short because the patrol car to which the device was mounted underwent repairs and was out of commission for four days.
Already out there
Officials from both departments said Columbia residents should not have concerns about issues of privacy and civil liberty because of the device.
Columbia Police Sgt. Brain Richenberger, who heads the Street Crimes Unit, said license plates are already in public view.
“There should be no privacy concerns, given the fact that this information is easily accessible by anybody,” Richenberger said. “This is a tool for apprehending criminals.”
Richenberger said that because the device can store information — even for plate numbers that don't instantly raise an alert — police can use it later to gather information on potential suspects.
Martin said both departments retained all license plate numbers scanned with the device throughout both trial periods. He also said Columbia and Boone County residents should not have privacy concerns.
“If the public is properly educated on the device and how we use it, those concerns would go away,” Martin said.
Martin and Richenberger declined to comment on how long the departments would retain license plate data if the devices are implemented.
Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill said it is unnecessary for the devices to store license plate data "to maintain a database full of what-ifs.”
Dan Viets of the Mid-Missouri Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sees that possibility as nearly Orwellian. The license plate reader would be a “major invasion” into the privacy of Columbia residents who drive motor vehicles, he said.
“The idea that the police would consider a database where they could show where everyone is at all times is straight out of ‘1984,'” Viets said.
“Even Orwell didn’t imagine that kind of surveillance."
New surveillance is old news
In April, Mayor Darwin Hindman cast the only vote in favor of a separate proposal that would have installed surveillance cameras throughout downtown Columbia. The proposal also had the support of several downtown businesses and property owners.
After her son, 25-year-old Adam Taylor, was assaulted in a downtown parking garage the night of June 6, Karen Taylor tried to persuade the council to consider surveillance cameras once more, and she began an organization called Keep Columbia Safe to advocate for public safety issues.
Investigators were able to track down Adam Taylor’s attackers just hours after the incident and were able to positively identify and arrest five suspects with the use of video recorded by a camera in the parking garage.
The Taylors appeared before the council July 20 to ask them to reconsider their decision on the cameras. Nauser proposed that the council take another look at the issue, but only three members of the council voted in support of her suggestion.
In a letter published by the Missourian on Aug. 24, Skala wrote that though he has always supported surveillance cameras in the city’s parking garages, he does not support taxpayer-funded surveillance cameras in highly visible areas downtown.
Skala wrote that existing research has not shown that such cameras have proven to be an effective crime deterrent and that installing the cameras could be a waste of public resources. He added that residents still have a “right to privacy” — even in public places — that is constitutionally protected.
Another issue related to the use of surveillance devices encountered much less friction with the Columbia City Council than with other city governments.
In July, red-light cameras were installed at traffic lights at the intersections of Broadway and Providence Road, and Stadium Boulevard and Worley Street to catch motorists who violate traffic laws. The city plans to have 16 cameras installed in the next 14 months, according to previous Missourian reports.
The issue has been a cause for controversy in other Missouri municipalities and in the Missouri General Assembly.
While that initiative has begun, it is unclear when the question of license plate readers will be resolved. The council plans to take up the issue again sometime in the next month.