AUSTIN, Texas — More Central Texas cities and counties are using license plate readers (LPRs) to help solve crimes, but the KVUE Defenders found that there are virtually no State regulations for how those cameras – and the data they generate – are used.
This year, many cities in Central Texas have put automatic license plate readers high in the sky to cut down on crime, but it hasn't happened without pushback.
"In fact, we had concerns here about sort of 'Big Brother' watching people as they come and go, but you've got to remember: Law enforcement is where we deal with information," said Sunset Valley Police Chief Lenn Carter. "...we have between seven and 800 residents here."
After an uptick in retail theft at the local shopping center, the small-town department installed 10 LPR cameras at city entrances and in high-traffic retail areas.
"Just to put this in perspective, we have 13 officers, and our city is just a mile," said Carter.
Since installing the cameras in February, the department has had dozens of hits.
"We're this donut hole here in Austin and we've recovered nearly 50 stolen cars," said Carter. "Most of the time, they are from the Austin area, san Antonio or Houston area."
He said people have mixed reactions when getting their cars back.
"So the reactions are mixed with bad," said Carter. "So, you get your car back and it's been wrecked and damaged and it's on you to fix it. "
He said those vehicles are often involved in other crimes as well.
"It's helped us to solve crimes that we wouldn't have been able to put the energy into, like road-rage incidents and assaults," said Carter.
While several companies make LPRs, most law enforcement in our area use products from Flock Safety.
According to Flock Safety, at least 12 agencies and cities in our 12-county viewing area are customers as of mid-November. There's no requirement to inform the public about the use of these cameras, so some agencies have disclosed usage themselves. Flock Safety was only able to give us the below seven entities.
HOAs and businesses can use the same private company.
Here's how it works: Vehicles reported stolen, involved in a missing persons case or certain felony offenses can be added to a database shared among agencies using Flock. The cameras can be mounted on a law enforcement vehicle or on top of a pole, snapping a time-stamped photo of every vehicle passing by, capturing details like model, color and even bumper stickers.
If it captures a wanted vehicle, law enforcement gets pinged.
"So it won't let me search it without putting the reason why I'm searching for," said Carter.
Police can also search the database, but only for active investigations.
We watched as Carter looked up black trucks that came through Sunset Valley. Dozens of potential hits popped up. In some photos, you could clearly see the front and back windows of the vehicles.
Flock Safety's website states its LPRs do not have facial recognition, which is why it's not considered "personally identifiable information."
In Pflugerville, police said that, since turning on the cameras in August; they used the data to make 20 arrests and recover 21 stolen vehicles.
In Round Rock, police said that, since April, they have used the data in at least 354 calls for service.
Also sharing Flock data with police are homeowners associations, or HOAs. As of November, at least 40 HOAs in the KVUE viewing area use Flock cameras. There are 36 in Travis County and four in Williamson County.
"Garlic Creek HOA is, like, proactive," said Garlic Creek HOA President Jeffrey Morales. "We're not reactive, we're proactive. We're trying to stay ahead of the game."
He said the board got tired of vandalism, trespassing and vehicle break-ins in the neighborhood. So, in July, the three-member HOA board voted to install three cameras at neighborhood access points, which he said has helped cut down on car break-ins and other possible threats.
"The board does have access, but we don't ever log in to use it for anything," Morales said.
Morales said their data is saved for 90 days and, unlike law enforcement, he said he can only see photos of vehicles coming and going from their neighborhood.
"We do see the basic," said Morales. "We don't see what the law enforcement see."
People who live there can opt out of having their data stored but, to do so, you have to give the company your license plate information.
"You can learn a lot of very, very sensitive stuff about people when this stuff is all connected," said Kevin Welch, president of EFF Austin, a group pushing to protect digital privacy.
Welch said he feels like LPRs violate the fourth amendment.
"The issue is, there is no way to track cars that are flagged as having committed a crime with this technology without tracking everyone, whether they've been convicted of a crime or not," said Welch.
As an engineer, Welch also worries about data breaches and the fact that a private company stores this widely shared information.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a report calling for stricture usage and data storage laws.
A Stanford University journal found that Black, Latino and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by the use of license plate reader cameras. So, where they are located is critical.
"Texas law is the Wild West in terms of this stuff," said Attorney Justin Roberts. "So, you just don't know where your movements are, who has access to that, who's sharing it."
Roberts said the technology is being implemented faster than the law can keep up.
"There are only a few isolated state law provisions that prohibit their use. And, so, municipalities can basically use them as they want to, except for things like red light cameras and speed enforcement cameras," Roberts said.
In 2019, the Texas Legislature banned red light cameras, which automatically ticketed drivers for running a red light. Lawmakers said it violated the right to due process, presuming the car owner was guilty when that may not have been the case. It's the same issue with speed enforcement cameras.
As for LPRs, groups concerned about privacy and storage are calling for the readers to be used by law enforcement only; not to store data of the innocent; a database to search who has their info; no sharing of data among agencies; and to require entities to report that they have the cameras.
"There are 16 other states that have put in place pretty strict restrictions on license plate readers," said Roberts.
For example, state law in New Hampshire limits data storage to only three minutes, a rule Welch wanted Austin's city council to adopt when reinstating the Austin Police Department's cameras in September through a one-year pilot program.
"If you have a homicide that occurs, you're not going to be able to go back in the first three minutes to figure out what you need to figure out," said Austin Assistance Police Chief Jeff Greenwalt.
Greenwalt said, like most technology, these cameras are not perfect and sometimes misread license plates.
"That does happen and that's why we have to visually confirm it," said Greenwalt.
"Again, here's the human factor," said Carter. "The officer has to make sure that that plate matches that car."
That's one of many rules various city councils have implemented.
"This kept getting debated over several months," said Welch.
The Austin City Council approved up to $114,775 to reinstate the cameras. It passed three to eight.
APD used cameras from Motorola from 2016 to 2020.
"There were zero instances found where anybody was using the system inappropriately," said Greenwalt.
This time around, they're considering using Flock Safety.
"We know that we've been a little bit negatively impacted since it was taken away," said Greenwalt.
APD has seen critical staffing shortages in recent years and leaders said the technology can fill gaps.
"LPR is our force multiplier," said Greenwalt. "We are able to do more with less."
Austin's LPR program ended in 2020 as part of the city's efforts to reimagine policing. At that time, cadet classes were put on hold to revamp training after an audit found racial profiling and other disparities within the department.
This year, the Austin City Council laid down stricter usage rules on the cameras:
- Instead of APD holding data for a year, they can store it for 30 days
- APD will only share data upon request
- The cameras are subject to quarterly audits by a chief security officer and an external party
- Officers will get annual training on usage
"If somebody is looking at license plates without a criminal nexus, that is a crime and it's against policy," said Greenwalt. "So, you're going to be looking at administrative sanctions up to and possibly including indefinite suspension and maybe criminal charges."
Greenwalt said the department will not use the cameras for parking tickets, warrant roundups or Class C misdemeanors.
Regarding immigration, the data won't be used for civil cases but it can be used in federal cases.
"We only release it for criminal investigation," said Greenwalt. "So if [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] were to ask for LPR data, if they have a criminal investigation for any reason, then we would help them out."
He added that their main concerns are prosecution related to reproductive health care, immigration status and ICE enforcement.
Round Rock and Pflugerville have online transparency portals showing who has access, searches and hits.
Roberts said this doesn't mean every municipality will be as transparent, so state laws are needed.
"It seems like a small thing now, but if there's no restriction on it and there's no protection put in place under state law or somewhere, you can see how this becomes a surveillance society with facial readers, biometric readers, things like that."
In 2019, bills for LPR regulations came up but didn't make it far. The next Texas legislative session starts in January.
"So, hopefully, this will have enough wind to carry us into the next session, so someone will file a bill to deal with it."
While LPR cameras are widely unregulated in Texas, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles created a grant specifically to fund LPRs for law enforcement this year. Around $800,000 has been awarded to over 40 jurisdictions.