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Colorado communities give the green light to license plate readers, advocates want to pump the brakes

Privacy concerns are being weighed against what law enforcement calls an effective way to keep communities safe. Denver7 360 breaks down multiple perspectives on the use of license plate readers.
Posted: 9:58 AM, May 12, 2024
Updated: 2024-05-13 17:18:12-04
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DENVER — Last year, more than $430 million worth of vehicles were stolen in Colorado.

One of those was Robert Huffman's.

"They just wanted to take it for a joyride," he told Denver7.

He doesn't bother driving it now after it was broken into or stolen nine different times.

"I just keep it parked, because, what's the odds of driving to the store and it being stolen while I'm at the store," said Huffman.

A tool growing in popularity to catch and prevent car thefts is license plate readers or LPRs.

Denver7 checked in with police departments across the Denver Metro area and found the majority have some sort of LPR system or will be installing some soon. That includes Arvada, Aurora, Boulder, Brighton, Commerce City, Denver, Edgewater, Erie, Glendale, Lakewood, Northglenn, Thornton and Wheatridge.

"It's a motion-activated still camera that captures pictures of the back of vehicles and the license plate, and then compares that license plate to different state and national crime databases," said Holly Beilin, spokesperson for Flock Safety, a company that sells LPRs and the software to run them.

The company said it now partners with around 70 law enforcement agencies in Colorado.

"A license plate is actually a completely objective piece of evidence that can directly be linked to a vehicle by law enforcement, and then used to follow up and hopefully solve the case," said Beilin.

The Castle Rock Police Department was one of Flock's first Colorado customers.

"When we first started, we were really the only agency, municipality, in the state of Colorado to have a network of license plate readers," said Castle Rock Police Chief Jack Cauley.

In 2021, Castle Rock PD created what they referred to as a ring around the town with the Flock cameras.

"We saw a 25% reduction in auto thefts in Castle Rock and then in 2022, on top of the 25%, we then saw a 15% reduction," said Chief Cauley.

Colorado communities give the green light to license plate readers, advocates want to pump the brakes

Denver has long struggled with auto thefts. Denver Police are now boosting their license plate readers from 2 to 111.

"Helping us locate vehicles that have been reported stolen, as well as vehicles that have been reported as being involved in a violent crime such as a homicide," said Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas in a news conference announcing the plan.

According to state records, about 12% of court cases involved stolen cars linked to violent crimes.

Earlier this year, a Northglenn LPR flagged a license plate as stolen. Within minutes police pulled the car over. They said the driver had a stolen gun and a nationwide warrant out for their arrest.

Some raise concerns the law enforcement benefits come with hidden costs: people's privacy and their civil liberties.

"What if the computer gets it wrong, now I'm getting pulled over when I haven't done anything wrong?" Denver7 reporter Danielle Kreutter asked Chief Cauley.

"One of the things that we really focus on is, training our police officers and our dispatchers on how to recognize when a hit on a license plate might be an error," he said.

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That assurance isn't enough for organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union.

"There's always the potential for abuse of these systems. That's especially concerning with surveillance systems that are this massive," said Laura Moraff, staff attorney at the ACLU of Colorado.

The organization wrote a White Paper on the topic in 2022 and has been keeping a close eye on the increased use of LPRs.

"When you have automatic license plate readers that can identify all the cars in the vicinity of an abortion clinic, or a political protest or the headquarters of an activist organization, it's really concerning," said Moraff.

Flock has created so-called Transparency webpages for law enforcement departments to show details to the public like how many license plates have been read recently and what other agencies they share information with.

"We don't want it to infringe on personal liberties and personal privacy," said Beilin.

Flock said their cameras only capture an image of the back of a car and all images are deleted from their system after 30 days.

"Running a license plate against a watch list or something like that really only takes a few seconds. There's really no need to retain the data for longer than a couple of minutes," said Moraff.

"You can imagine if a crime takes place on a Monday, and we don't find out about it until Wednesday, the ability to go back and identify a potential suspect in that crime, and then later have them identified and charged with a crime is very very powerful," said Chief Cauley.

Other communities have decided the potential impact on liberties may not be worth it. In December, Elbert County Commissioners decided not to renew their contract with Flock. Commissioners made it clear it was not a reflection of their county law enforcement, but rather a question of freedom and liberty of movement versus security.

While law enforcement works to end car thefts, sick and tired drivers like Huffman are protecting themselves as best they can.

"I got arm bars and a boot for it," he said, "I'll come out here and purposely walk my dog at midnight just to make sure everything's alright."


Financial help for stolen vehicle victims

When auto theft victims in Colorado get their vehicle back, they often find it to be in a less than desirable condition. There's assistance to help cover costs including towing, storage and detailing.

Editor's Note: Denver7 360 | In-Depth explores multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 In-Depth stories, email us at 360@Denver7.com or use this form. See more 360 | In-Depth stories here.