Paradise Valley Independent

On the record: Lt. Mike Cole talks police data collection

Paradise Valley Police Lt. Mike Cole

In an effort to better explain both the data collected by both photo radar and license plate reader machines throughout the Town of Paradise Valley, the Independent sought information from the police department.

Paradise Valley Police Lt. Michael Cole, a 20-year veteran of the department, obliged and offers key insight to the technology and why local law enforcement officials believe the programs help keep residents safe.

This what he had to say:

• As an automobile passes through an intersection where both photo radar equipment and license plate readers are stationed, what specific information is recorded and where does that information go?

LPR records the location of the LPR unit and direction of travel monitored, an image of the rear of the vehicle, and the date and time of the photo. That imagery and data is securely transmitted to a server at the police department.

Photo enforcement records the location and direction monitored for the violation, an image of the rear of the vehicle, an image of the front of the vehicle including the driver’s face, a 12-second video of the violation, the date and time of the photos, and any violation data (speed for speed violations and speed/timing of red light run for red light violations). This imagery and data is securely transmitted to the photo enforcement vendor (Redflex) for an initial review prior to the Police Department deciding whether to issue a citation. All images and data remain the property of the Town of Paradise Valley.

These are two separate technologies with two separate purposes, and they do not communicate with each other. There are only two intersections where both of these technologies are installed. Those intersections are Lincoln Drive and Palo Cristi and Tatum and McDonald.

• How is this information used by law enforcement officials?

LPR software attempts to identify a license plate from the vehicle photo and then checks that license plate against a hotlist. The hotlist is provided to AZ law enforcement agencies by the Arizona Department of Public Safety. The hotlist is securely transmitted to PVPD from DPS, and is updated twice daily into our LPR system.

The hotlist data is comprised of stolen vehicles, stolen license plates, vehicles registered to wanted persons (assuming the agency entering the warrant added the vehicle to the warrant), and Amber/Blue/Silver alerts. In addition, PVPD has the ability to add locally any license plates for officer safety alerts or persons of interest in Paradise Valley criminal investigations. These local entries are only used by the PVPD LPR systems, and are not transmitted back to DPS or included in any other agency hotlist data. If the software identifies a license plate on the list it notifies dispatch. Dispatch will verify that the license plate identified was read correctly by the software and that the hotlist hit is for the correct state (LPR cannot distinguish states).

If the plate read is correct and the state is correct the dispatcher will then run the license plate through the live ACJIS (Arizona Criminal Justice Information System) database to verify the hotlist want reason is still active. If it is they will notify the officers. Officers will then attempt to locate the vehicle and make a traffic stop (if there is an active want on the license plate or vehicle) or develop their own reasonable suspicion to make a traffic stop (if a person associated with the vehicle has a warrant).

Photo enforcement data is pre-screened initially by Redflex according to rules that the town has determined. Incidents that are speeding or red light running violations where the vehicle and driver are identifiable are made available through a secure portal to the photo enforcement technicians at the police department.

Our photo enforcement technicians review the incidents and make the determination if the incident should be sent out as a citation or not. Incidents where the vehicle is identifiable but the driver is not, or where the vehicle is registered to a corporation and not a person, are sent out as a Notice of Violation (NOV) to the registered owner notifying them that their vehicle was involved in a possible traffic violation. If the registered owner chooses to identify the driver the incident may be processed as a citation as per above.

Are there two different data points here?

These are two completely different systems with two completely different purposes. They do not communicate with each other. Their purposes are completely different, and most are not at the same locations.

Photo enforcement is deployed at our high volume intersections to enhance traffic safety while LPR is deployed at our major entrance points to identify criminals entering town. Some data they record is similar and some is different, but they are recording it for different reasons primarily at different locations in town and they do not communicate or share data with each other.

•What needs to happen in order for a license plate reader to notify a police officer a motorist ought to be stopped?

The LPR camera must capture a photograph of the vehicle, the software must identify a potential license plate in the photograph, that plate read must be checked against the hotlist, and that plate read must match a vehicle on the hotlist.

In order for the officer to take action on the hotlist hit they must be in a position to find the vehicle, and they must either confirm an active want still exists by checking the license plate against the live ACJIS database or develop their own reasonable suspicion to support the stop and detention of the vehicle and occupants (speeding, expired registration, etc.).

•In order to discover outstanding felony warrants wouldn’t every license plate have to be read and analyzed to discover the outstanding warrant?

The LPR system attempts to photograph and identify every license plate that passes through a monitored lane of traffic. All the identified license plates are run against the hotlist to determine if they are wanted. The hotlist is just a static database containing the license plate number, state, and reason it is wanted. It does not contain registered owner (unless they are wanted) or personally identifying information and the LPR system does not have access to “run” live databases at MVD, ACJIS or any other live database.

The hotlist is simply a static file containing wanted license plates and the reason they are wanted. The hotlist is provided to law enforcement agencies by the Arizona Department of Public Safety. The hotlist is securely transmitted to PVPD from DPS, and is updated twice daily into our LPR system. The hotlist data is comprised of stolen vehicles, stolen license plates, vehicles registered to wanted persons (assuming the agency entering the warrant added the vehicle), and Amber/Blue/Silver alerts.

In addition, PVPD has the ability to add locally any license plates for officer safety alerts or persons of interest in Paradise Valley criminal investigations. These local entries are only used by the PVPD LPR systems, and are not transmitted back to DPS or included in any other agency hotlist data. If a plate is not on the hotlist there is no data at all in the database on the vehicle or the registered owner. If it is on the list the only associated data will be the reason it is wanted and/or the person who is wanted.

It would be up to the officer and/or dispatcher to run that license plate through the live databases to confirm the want on the plate is still active and determine the specifics of the want.

•Can police officers see where motorists are with license plate reader technology with or without an outstanding felony warrant?

We cannot see motorists at all. All we can determine is license plates. Just a clarification as I think a lot of people misunderstand the technology and think we are “running” every license plate to see who owns the car and then record where they have been. The system simply records a license plate “ABC123” with a location and date/time.

We have no idea who was driving, who the car is registered to (unless they are on the hotlist for warrants), or even what type of car the license plate is supposed to be on. We can search the license plate in the software, so we could look up every plate read for “ABC123.” We do this in criminal investigations when we identify a suspect and their vehicle and then try to see if we captured their license plate entering town around the time of the crime to help build a criminal case in court. We have a policy on LPR use and train officers in the acceptable use on an annual basis.

Officers are only allowed to run license plates for a valid law enforcement reason, and everything they do in the system is tracked so we know what they have done. Everyone with access to the LPR software has their own unique username and password as well so we know who logged in and what they did. If your question is asking, “can the officers log in and watch license plates as they move around Town,” then no. The plate reads are recorded in a static database that must be manually searched. We cannot see license plates moving around on a map.

•With this data being collected not deemed a public record does that concern you?

One of the seven core values of the Paradise Valley Police Department is transparency, and we pride ourselves on being open with the community we serve to earn credibility and their trust.

The reason we do not release this data to the public is out of concern that someone would try to use it for unethical or criminal purposes. It could be possible for a jealous spouse to try to obtain the license plate reads for their counterpart to try track their movements, or a stalker to do the same. We never want this data to be used for anything other than valid law enforcement purposes.

We do not release the LPR data to anyone other than for legitimate law enforcement purposes. We do not release it to politicians or employers so they would not have access to it to use it against the groups you listed.

The data stored is only a date/time, location and plate read so if somehow, hypothetically, they got it, I do not see how it would be used against them. It does not tell us who was driving, who was in the vehicle, where they were going/coming from, what they were doing, etc. The LPR photos are only of the rear of the vehicle centered around the license plate so we do not even get a picture of the front of the vehicle to capture the driver/occupants’ image.

The photo radar enforcement data is likewise only released for legitimate law enforcement purposes. It does contain a photo of the front of the vehicle to try to identify the driver, and it also contains information regarding the alleged traffic violation. Since we do not release this data I don’t see how it could be used by the groups you listed against anyone. Since violations are already processed through the criminal justice system I don’t see how they would be used against someone since the criminal justice system is already aware of and pursuing the violation.

• Are police officers able to identify more than felony warrants through the usage of technology like license plate readers?

As explained above, the only things identified by the LPR system are the items entered on the hotlist: stolen vehicles, stolen license plates, vehicles registered to wanted persons (assuming the agency entering the warrant added the vehicle), Amber/Blue/Silver alerts, and any license plates entered by PVPD for officer safety alerts or persons of interest in Paradise Valley criminal investigations. Most of the traffic arrests you are seeing are not a result of license plate reader hits. Criminal speeding, suspended driver’s licenses, suspended license plates, open containers of alcohol, etc. are all criminal offenses that will show as an administrative arrest with a cite and release but are not recorded or identified by the LPR system. In 2018 we had 25 total arrests related to LPR hits.

•How often are police officers using LPR data to make arrests?

In 2018 we had 25 total arrests related to LPR hits. 15 of those arrests were warrant arrests, and 10 were other types of arrests. In 2018 we recovered $218,010 in stolen property due to license plate reader hits.
Most of that being stolen vehicles.

LPR alerts when a license plate read is on the hotlist. Officers are then notified and take the appropriate enforcement action. Wanted persons are arrested, stolen vehicles are recovered and the driver’s arrested, etc. Oftentimes these people are also in the commission of other crimes when they are stopped so we often end up with additional charges for drugs, weapons, possession of stolen property, etc.

•What information is provided to officers on patrol if a motorist with no outstanding felony warrants passes through an intersection with both photo radar equipment and license plate reader technology?

The LPR system will also notify on stolen license plates, stolen vehicles, Amber/Blue/Silver alerts, vehicles registered to persons with misdemeanor warrants (assuming the entering agency added the vehicle) and any license plates entered by PVPD for officer safety alerts or persons of interest in Paradise Valley criminal investigations.

If a license plate is not listed on the hotlist under any of those categories there will be no notification to anyone whatsoever that the license plate was read. If it is on the list for one of those reasons the LPR system will send the reason the plate is on the hotlist, date/time of the read, location/direction of travel, a picture of the rear of the vehicle, and the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) read of the plate for verification. No information whatsoever is passed to officers on patrol from the photo enforcement system when a vehicle passes through a monitored intersection.

•Is there much conversation at the department about motorist privacy concerns?

We take privacy concerns very seriously, that is why we do not release this information without a legitimate law enforcement related purpose. We discuss concerns about releasing this data and the policies we have in place protecting this data during annual training.

•With much of this information deemed not a public record how does the general public know what is being recorded?

We tell them. We had a major public information campaign when we implemented LPR technology in the town. We were very open in numerous public meetings, posted on our social media, and sent out numerous press releases explaining where we were implementing LPR technology, how it works, and what data it records.

On May 20, 2015 we sent out a press release and posted on our social media an article that was very comprehensive on our LPR technology.

Our LPR project was covered by all of the local media, and the Town of Paradise Valley Independent ran several articles as early as 2013 advising our public that council had approved the project before we even started working on implementation.

We have also tried to notify the public through press releases when we have used the technology to make significant arrests. The Independent has published many of these incidents. I found 11 articles by the Independent doing a quick search.

We have a page on our website devoted to our Photo Enforcement technology and provide a map to photo radar and LPR locations in town. We discuss the history of photo radar in town on our website’s history page.
A quick search of the Independent website also returned at least 10 articles on our photo enforcement program.

We want the public to know we have these technologies and are actively using them. The main point of these technologies is deterrence. When LPR stops a criminal from ever entering town because they know we are checking license plates for wanted subjects or a person doesn’t speed or run a red light in town because they know we use photo enforcement the technologies are most successful. The primary purpose of the programs is to stop crime and traffic violations before they occur, not to catch them perpetrators after.