Police technology has ups and downs

CAPE GIRARDEAU (AP) — New technology being used by police in the southeast Missouri town of Cape Girardeau is being called a great crime-fighting aid. But others think it’s an invasion of privacy.

For the past seven months, Cape Girardeau police have used a patrol car with high-speed cameras attached to its roof to capture photos of nearly every passing vehicle and its license plate.

Each plate number is sent to a national database accessible only by police agencies. The system sounds an alarm if the plate belongs to someone with an active warrant or criminal history, if the car is suspected stolen or if the plate is part of a missing child investigation.

In just the last month, the automatic plate number recognition technology system has scanned more than 27,000 license plates in Cape Girardeau, a town of about 38,000 residents 100 miles south of St. Louis.

“Investigatively, it can help us in a way like no other,” police spokesman Darin Hickey said.

The system has led to arrests in more than 15 cases and helped identify potential suspects and witnesses in the investigation of a deadly nightclub shooting in December. Reports of thefts from businesses and gas from convenience stores have been compiled with the system, helping to identify suspects, Hickey said.

The equipment was purchased last year with a grant from the Missouri Police Chiefs Association. A few other Missouri cities are using the system.

The American Civil Liberties Union has been a vocal opponent, alleging in a lawsuit last year that the technology was allowing police to unjustly track people who did not commit crimes.

Cape Girardeau councilman John Voss said the system’s value in thwarting crime makes it worth it.

“Law-abiding citizens shouldn’t have anything to worry about,” he said. “It will be their friend in a time of need.”

Hickey said the system isn’t perfect. It doesn’t detect the state of the license plate, nor does it alert officers to plates attached to drivers with revoked or suspended licenses or drivers who might have other outstanding misdemeanors.

The database in which the scanned information is sent and stored is in Virginia. It can remain stored for an indefinite period. Private investigators, towing companies and bail bondsmen can enter data if they have their own license plate scanning equipment, but they can’t access the data for their own use.

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