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License plate readers a crime fighting tool

While it sure sounds like Big Brother, police leaders in Bloomfield Township and Birmingham assure us that automated license plate readers are a new and necessary tool in the fight against crime in their communities. And each police chief has noted they are hardly on the cutting edge of the technology – Troy, Southfield, West Bloomfield, Auburn Hills, Oakland County Sheriff Department and Michigan State Police, along with hundreds of agencies across the country, utilize Flock automated license plate readers, which are cameras posted on poles that take real time rapid photos of the license plate of a vehicle and anything else in the rear of the vehicle. As Bloomfield Township Police Chief James Gallagher noted, “It's a vehicle fingerprint.”

Automated license plate readers cannot, at least at this time, with this technology, identify faces or people. And while the license plate readers can assist officers in finding a suspect or a vehicle, officers still have to follow all of the laws, and have to properly identify the driver as the criminal being sought, and properly make their case.

Both Gallagher and Birmingham Police Chief Scott Grewe insist the license plate readers are excellent crime fighting tools, and an extra resource in helping to solve crimes. Gallagher pointed out the recent Lansing Amber Alert case, which unfortunately met a tragic end – yet law enforcement were able to find the suspect quickly, in large part due to automated license plate readers which transmitted his license plate data to police agencies along his route in real time.

Grewe brought up another case which occurred in Birmingham in January 2023, which utilized automated license plate readers in other jurisdictions. A Birmingham store owner was mugged and had her purse forcibly snatched as she walked in the crosswalk on N. Old Woodward and Harmon after closing her store for the day. “We were able to use cameras from other agencies to solve that crime,” Grewe said. “If we had had cameras (automated license plate readers), we would have been able to identify the suspect's car quickly, and prevent anyone else from being assaulted.”

Both Birmingham and Bloomfield Township police departments have recently been approved for a “starter” number of automated license plate readers – Birmingham is in the midst of permitting to purchase five, which were approved in their annual budget. Bloomfield Township will purchase nine, although the company, Flock, recommended 31, which Gallagher feels is overkill as all of the township's surrounding municipalities have them, and depending upon where the cameras are posted, data, and therefore costs, are shared. An example is at the intersection of Maple and Cranbrook, where Birmingham will likely post one in one direction, which covers two lanes of traffic; in time, Bloomfield Township will likely post one in another direction, thereby sharing the cost of covering the intersection.

We are impressed with the new technology as another tool in the proverbial toolbox. Not every officer in every police agency has access to data acquired – only command staff, investigative units, and dispatch, if necessary. Without facial recognition, the license plate reader cameras help to avoid any Orwellian “Big Brother” connotation, especially since each municipality owns their own data, and after 30 days, whether a case is solved or not, the data is purged.

The only slight dilemma with that is the potential a bizarre case could come up, like the Long Island Gilgo Beach serial killer. But considering how rare a situation like that is, the transparency of the automated license plate reader system and the benefits to the communities and law enforcement overwhelmingly tip the scales in its favor.


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