License Plate Readers: A COMMUNITY PERSPECTIVE
In 2010, the GMU research team randomly sampled 2000 residents from Fairfax County (VA) on their views about license plate readers. Below, we briefly summarize some key notes from this survey to provide law enforcement agencies with a community perspective on this LPR. We encourage agencies to examine Chapter 4 of the Final Report for a full reporting of all findings*.
1. Gauging Police Legitimacy. Many independent surveys of the police, conducted across different types of cities and countries, show that the police generally enjoy high levels of trust and confidence from the majority of their citizens. However, despite this overall satisfaction, there has also been found a gap between perceptions of fairness and trust when comparing different community groups. In the U.S. and U.K. specifically, ethnic minority residents tend to have significantly lower levels of trust and confidence in the police, which are often masked by overall satisfaction rates** .Such findings are mirrored in our survey of residents in Virginia.
It is clear that police can no longer rest on the laurels of a high overall satisfaction rate if that satisfaction and perceptions of service vary significantly across various communities. Overall measures of satisfaction include large portions of the community who may have little contact with the police and may rarely be affected by their actions. Agencies should seek out communities and individuals who do feel marginalized or mistreated, and explore explanations for, and possible remedies to, their concerns.
More generally, police agencies should make it a regular practice to conduct random-sample surveys of their communities to gain a better measure of the attitudes, values and concerns of their citizens. Such an approach may provide a more detailed and broader assessment of community feelings and ideas than community meetings, which may not be representative of the communities they ostensibly stand for. In these surveys, police should ask citizens to anonymously identify important demographic or socio-economic characteristics that research evidence indicates may be linked to differential attitudes towards police: race, ethnicity, age, gender, or occupation, for example. This will help police departments to better determine which communities require efforts for improving perceptions of legitimacy and police/community relationships. Research indicates that increased legitimacy and public trust in the process of policing can lead to more cooperation and better crime prevention outcomes.
2. Understanding specific concerns about various LPR uses. The survey revealed that citizen concerns about the uses of police technology are complex. Populations are often split, for example, between those willing to give up civil rights to combat terrorism with technology and those who disagree with such a notion. The complexity in beliefs regarding civil liberties, privacy, rights, technology and public security was also discovered in varying levels of support for different uses of license plate readers. Support for this police technology depends on which types of crimes and investigations LPRs are used for, as well as how data might be collected, stored and reused. For example, most citizens supported their local police using LPR to check to see if passing vehicles were stolen or to monitor high-risk targets of terrorism. However, of all applications for LPR that citizens were asked about, they were least likely to support police checking for parking violations with LPR or using data collected to recreate travel patterns of those involved in low-level infractions. Furthermore, the majority of respondents considered the data collected by LPR systems to be private, and that policies and protections should be in place for the use of this data.
As with many types of police practices and policies (patrol, response to 911 calls, arrest, community interactions, investigations), “one size does not fit all.” The variation of support for different uses of LPR technology and its data reveal a complexity that requires thoughtful policies for a range of uses which reflect the weighing of crime prevention gains as well as effects on police legitimacy for each use. Furthermore, protections afforded to other types of data already collected and used by the police can be applied to information collected by LPRs.
3. Storing and using data. With regard to LPR data collection, storage, and use, this community generally supported the idea of police saving LPR data for six months or more, but the extent of this support was conditioned by the purposes for which the data would be used. Data use for crime solving was more likely to be supported than data use without any specific purpose. If the police saved LPR data, respondents were most likely to “strongly support” police using this data to find the last location of a vehicle associated with a crime. However, this “strong support” waned when asked about other uses of stored LPR data. Most people said that the police should be able to share LPR data with other government agencies given certain restrictions and regulations.
4. Communicate with, educate, and learn from your communities. Many citizens had not heard of license plate recognition technology before they were surveyed and didn’t know whether their local police used it. When asked what would most help to alleviate concerns about LPR, this community made three suggestions to the police: (1) develop policies which require officers to obtain some kind of permission prior to using collected LPR data; (2) consult with an attorney about its use; and (3) at least provide some forum for the public to discuss the issue.
These are reasonable suggestions that can be accomplished by most, if not all, police agencies who use license plate readers. Community legitimacy can be built not only by implementing practices that are effective in reducing crime and that reflect democratic values, but also by police consistently informing their communities about law enforcement concerns and providing a forum to allow citizens to express their perceptions and needs concerning different types of police activities.
**See Durose, M., Schmitt, E., & Langan, P. (2005). Contacts between Police and the Public: Findings from the 2002 National Survey. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.