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Police Complaints Board Releases Report on Automated License Plate Readers

Friday, September 25, 2020
(Board examines privacy and transparency concerns with stored and shared data)

(Washington, DC)  – The District of Columbia Police Complaints Board (PCB), the governing body of the Office of Police Complaints (OPC), today released a report to Mayor Muriel Bowser, the Council of the District of Columbia and Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Peter Newsham addressing privacy and transparency concerns regarding the retention and sharing of automated license plate reader (ALPR) data.

ALPR is a surveillance technology used by several law enforcement agencies across the nation to capture the license plate number and location data of all passing cars. This information is stored in a searchable database and used to assist law enforcement in solving crimes.

The PCB found there are no consistent policies in many states on how long data images of license plates that do not relate to any crime (“non-hit” or “passive” data) should be stored. In addition, the PCB found that policies regarding transparency and specific purposes of using ALPR data varies state by state.

MPD’s current policy on ALPR technology (General Order) allows for its use on police vehicles and can also be mounted on poles or on the side of the road. The data is stored on patrol car mobile data computers for 30 days and then the system overwrites the data. The same data is stored at MPD main computers  for up to 90 days and then destroyed.

Additionally, MPD policy states that the Department receives ALPR data from other agencies and handheld ticket devices and the information from the database should not be used by any civilian or police officer for any purpose other than “official law enforcement purposes.”

The PCB is concerned about the transparency and privacy of ALPR data collected and received by MPD, specifically from other agencies. Therefore, the Board recommends the following to help improve and facilitate better relations, minimize the potential for constitutional violations, and increase trust between MPD officers and community members:

  • MPD must ensure there is an easily identifiable and clear process for community members to obtain ALPR collected information about themselves. This can be accomplished through the existing FOIA process or some other means. The process should be outlined publicly on the MPD website, as the process for obtaining BWC footage currently is.
     
  • MPD must publicly identify any third parties that have access to the ALPR data and information, including other law enforcement agencies and private parties, and ensure all third parties adhere to the same principles as MPD in obtaining and deleting this information. MPD must also share publicly any ALPR databases, other than their own, to which MPD has access.
     
  • MPD must be transparent with the community about all aspects of ALPR data collection. MPD must disclose how many systems and collection point receivers MPD has and what types; what, if any, safeguarding systems are in place to prevent the misuse of data (such as an audit schedule to detect any unauthorized access or sharing); whether any persons have been investigated and disciplined for noncompliance with ALPR policies, and costs associated with the purchase, operation, maintenance, and any data sharing. This information should be posted on the MPD website. 4. MPD must revise General Order 303.09 to further define “official law enforcement purpose.” Given that multiple protests occur constantly in the District, MPD must specifically state in the General Order that using ALPR data to track those at a protest is not an acceptable “official law enforcement purpose.”

“MPD has a policy in place for the use of ALPR technology,” said Michael G. Tobin, OPC’s executive director. “However, it should be updated to ensure community members that their personal data is being protected and regulate who has access to it.”

To view the full report, visit www.policecomplaints.dc.gov.