Unregulated Police Surveillance Catches Crime In Spokane

Aug 20, 2013

Regulating government surveillance in Spokane took the spotlight in Monday’s city council meeting. But the newest, flashiest police equipment is being ignored under city regulations.

Automatic license plate readers are installed on two Spokane police vehicles.
Credit Paige Browning

Spokane police just upgraded their Automatic License Plate Readers, or ALPRs, which they’ve used for a couple of years. Officer Teresa Fuller says two cop cars have cameras on the roof.

Fuller:“That license plate reader reads the plates as they’re driving along, and if something come up like a stolen vehicle or a stolen license plate, then it gives the officer a hit.”

Fuller says in the last three months ALPRs have helped locate more than 30 stolen vehicles.

Cole: “So right now it’s reading the cars we’re passing, you hear that little beep, and it’s reading those cars.”

Officer Dan Cole says the ALPRs help him find stolens more quickly. And today, he gets one.

Cole: “That’s a hit, that’s a hit on the truck.”

It’s parked vacant on east Indiana Avenue, so he calls the owner Sandra Summers to come get it.

Summers: “I feel good that I got it back, it doesn’t look totaled or anything.”

Her truck was stolen a week ago, so she inspects it and gives the ignition a turn.

Summers: “I can’t believe they were comfortable riding around in a stolen truck. There we go…”

Summers’ truck information will leave the ALPR system since it’s been recovered. But not all data is deleted so quickly, and that’s one reason the American Civil Liberties Union has fired off a warning alarm.

Debelak: “We don’t currently have any legal restrictions on these devices. On how they can be used, or on how the data can be stored, how long it can be stored.”

Jamela Debelak is with the ACLU of Washington. She says her chapter started looking into ALPRs several years ago when it heard of state agencies using them. Debelak says they know of 22 agencies in Washington who use them. She says the ACLU’s main concern is there are no legal restrictions in place in Washington.

Debelak: “Which means that as they are currently being used, they are able to collect and store data about everybody driving, not just people suspected of crimes. And they’re able to store that data indefinitely… and then once it’s held, it’s used for police agents to go tap into and look through, without any restrictions about what might be required before they’re looking through the data.”

Officer Fuller says the Police Department only uses them to track cars and license plates, and saves the data for 90 days.

Fuller: “But we’re very conscientious of the public opinion and the way that these cameras will be used. Those decisions will come as we get used to the equipment and get more equipment, as to if we’re going to expand how we use it.”

The ACLU would like regulations before any expansions. They wrote to Spokane City Council members asking them to add ALPRs into an ordinance regulating city surveillance. But, council president Ben Stuckart said those are longer term, more in-depth conversations.

Stuckart: “With both the prosecutor’s office, the city legal department, and the police department, and community members. Quite frankly we could have that conversation for the next six months.”

For now the city only has regulations on drones, which aren't in use yet. ALPRs could come under watch down the road.

Copyright 2013 Spokane Public Radio