Iowa police cruisers get automated license-plate readers

Reader scans every license plate and alerts officers of any potential criminal issue related to the car or its owner

By Rick Smith
The Gazette

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Odds in Cedar Rapids are moving against you if you're driving a stolen vehicle, driving without a license, or are wanted on a criminal warrant of any kind.

The City Council on Tuesday is slated to approve the Police Department's request to purchase two automatic license-plate readers, which will be placed on police squad cars and will come with the technological capability to scan every license plate the cameras pass and then to instantaneously alert the police officers of any potential criminal issue related to the car or its owner.

Police Chief Wayne Jerman on Monday said he expected the officers in squad cars with the plate readers to get "hits frequently."

Jerman said the plate readers will mean that people living or moving through Cedar Rapids and wanted by the law are going to find it harder to avoid arrest.

"That's why we're acquiring them," the chief said. "If they are wanted for committing a crime, then they need to be held accountable for the crime they are wanted for."

Law enforcement in Des Moines and Sioux City currently use license plate readers.

Jerman said he intends to have a policy in place to dictate how the plate readers are used by the time they go into operation in late summer or early fall. He is reviewing policies from other departments and model policies from the International

Association of Chiefs of Police and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.

Veronica Fowler, spokeswoman for the ACLU of Iowa, said her organization has advised that plate reading technology be used "in a narrow and carefully regulated way."

Jerman was an advocate for plate readers when he became Cedar Rapids police chief in 2012 after having used the technology as chief of the Field Service Bureau at the Montgomery County, Md., Police Department.

"A number of the officers —I hate to use the term fight —but they would try to fight for vehicles equipped with license-plate readers because of the ease that it allowed them to identify and locate wanted people," the chief said.

He said that included drivers with suspended and revoked licenses, unregistered vehicles, stolen vehicles and people with criminal arrest warrants.

"Oftentimes it was a matter of minutes after the officers would enter a busy roadway that they would achieve these hits," he said. "I was given story after story of how effective the officers were in using these systems."

Jerman declined to compare the use of plate readers with the city's network of traffic enforcement cameras, which a group of local motorists sued the city over, claiming, in part, that the cameras took away their freedom to drive on the highway. The city also is embroiled in litigation it initiated, fighting the Iowa Department of Transportation on the use of the traffic enforcement cameras.

However, Jerman said he doesn't understand the argument that license-plate readers might impinge on a person's rights.

"It's not depriving anybody of the right to privacy," the chief said. "There's nothing different from if I was to position an officer with a pad of paper and a pencil to write down every license plate that passed the officer and have the officer check all available law databases for that plate.

"The only difference is that we are taking advantage of the technology that is available today and using the technology to increase our efficiency. So where is the invasion of privacy?"

The ACLU of Iowa's model policy calls for license-plate readers to be used on plates "exposed to public view," including those on public streets or on private property that is visible from the public street or that the public has access to, such as a business parking lot.

Jerman said he plans to use the license-plate readers in parking lots and on the street.

City Council member Justin Shields, chairman of the council's Public Safety and Youth Services Committee, said Monday that the license-plate readers will provide the Police Department with another tool to "keep ahead of the criminals."

"It is so important," Shields said. "We have so many people coming in and out of our city all the time, and if there is a way we can identify problems, that's all we're trying to do."

Jerman said license-plate readers also can help in the hunt for missing children and for Alzheimer's patients who have lost their way.

The cost of the two license-plate readers is $31,700, $30,000 of which is being paid by a state grant, the chief said. He said the rest is coming from revenue derived from the forfeiture of criminals' assets.

Copyright 2015 The Gazette

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