Permanent watch: an examination of police surveillance and the public record

Paradise Valley police officials have an extensive bailiwick of surveillance systems and approaches to monitoring motorists as they drive in, around and through the Town of Paradise Valley. (Arianna Grainey/Independent Newspapers)

The Police had a hit in 1983 with the popular single, “Every Breath you Take.”

But in the 21st Century, police in the Town of Paradise Valley — thanks to cutting-edge surveillance technology — are aware of moves a motorist may make and every turn they might take within town limits.

Over the past several years, the Paradise Valley Police Department has embarked upon a technological revolution that replaces antiquated systems with top-of-the-line hardware.

A marriage between technology and policing has long been part of the local police department narrative. After all, the municipality is known for being one of the first in the nation to use photo radar, which was first implemented in 1987 and continues to this day.

During the last fiscal year, the Town of Paradise Valley issued 47,651 photo radar tickets, which accounted for $2,195,989 in gross fine remits — with $606,726 provided to the state and county, and $572,057 paid to Redflex Traffic Systems.

The amount retained by the town was $1,017,206, court records show.

A view of photo radar vehicles employed by the Town of Paradise Valley. (File photo)

In addition to photo radar, over the last few years the municipality has installed license plate readers at all major town entrances. The technology monitors traffic entering and leaving the town through major municipal corridors.

As a result, town technology not only can tell how fast you’re driving, but whether or not the motorist driving has any outstanding warrants. The municipality has 5 fixed photo radar locations and a total of 11 fixed license plate reader installations.

EDITOR’s NOTE: This article originally published the incorrect number of fixed photo radar locations within the Town of Paradise Valley. There are five. We appologize for any confusion this may have caused.

Both surveillance programs work independently of one another and data is not shared between them, police officials say.

A typical scenario has emerged with the usage of license plate reader technology:

A car enters an intersection and that license plate is automatically checked against what police officials call a “hotlist” and when serious legal infractions or warrant information is found local law enforcement is notified.

So far in 2018, the police department credits 25 arrests to license plate reader data: 15 of those were for outstanding warrants and 10 were “other types of arrests,” according to Paradise Valley Police Lt. Mike Cole. PVPD officials say the department has recovered $218,010 in stolen property due to license plate reader hits.

“The goal of (license plate readers) is not traffic safety, it is in reducing crime and increasing solved cases,” Lt. Cole said of the catlyst for the surveilene program.

“(License plate readers) have two functions: enforcement and investigation. Enforcement works by identifying the serious criminal offenders — felony warrants, stolen vehicles, Amber Alert vehicles, etc. — as they enter town and stopping and arresting the associated criminals before they can victimize our residents.

Investigation works by helping us identify suspects after a crime has been committed and tying them to crimes they committed in town. This helps us make more arrests and recover more stolen property, which both reduce victimization for our residents.”

Some days, traffic counts suggest, the process of reading and evaluating local license plates occurs several thousand times a day.

The data collected is not public record, municipal officials agree.

At the Tatum Boulevard and Lincoln Drive intersection, the Town of Paradise Valley employs photo radar equipment with license plate reader machines at the intersection of Lincoln Drive and Palo Cristi Road. (Independent Newsmedia/Arrianna Grainey)

Not a public record

On Friday, May 11, the Independent made four public records request at Town Hall, 6401 E. Lincoln Drive, with two of those requests seeking data collected from both photo radar equipment and license plate reader technology.

Paradise Valley Town Attorney Andrew Miller

The broad requests sought “any and all information” retained by the surveillance technology, but were denied by Town Attorney Andrew Miller. Mr Miller claimed the request put an undue burden upon the town for both the photo radar and license plate reader data.

He invited the Independent to narrow down the request for photo radar data, but says license plate reader information is privileged to municipal officials only — specifically law enforcement.

“The town does not consider the raw LPR data to be a public record subject to disclosure,” he said.

Mr. Miller claims legal opinion is on the side of nonpublic disclosure in this matter.

“The town has never released raw LPR data and believes that doing so would not be in the best interest of the town and the public at large under the balancing test analysis identified in Carlson v. Pima County and Mathews v. Pyl,” he said of the 1984 Carlson case that appeared before the Arizona Supreme Court concerning the release of prison “offense reports” and the personal records of inmates.

The Arizona Supreme Court ruled in favor of the inmate, which ultimately eliminated the distinction between public records and “other matters” in favor of a comparison of the interests of privacy and the policy of openness with regard to whether records should be released.

“The test noted in one of the more recent public records cases, Griffis v. Pinal County, is ‘whether privacy, confidentiality, or the best interests of the state outweigh the policy in favor of disclosure,’” Mr. Miller said pointing out the distinction between a record that is available for public inspection, which is based on Arizona Revised Statutes Title 39-121. “The town sees a need for retaining the confidentiality of the LPR data under the ‘best interests’ analysis in order to avoid adverse impacts that could result from releasing the LPR data,” he said of his legal opinion.

Mr. Miller says he fears releasing that kind of raw data to the general public could result in the information falling into the wrong hands and could be “used by individuals for illicit or nefarious purposes.”

Mr. Miller provides the following legal analysis of why license plate reader information is not a public record:

  • There is no real public need to know about the time, date, and location that a particular license plate number was recorded driving past a particular license plater reader location.
  • Releasing the license plate reader data could lead a stalker or other person with ill or illegal intent who has the ability to connect a particular license plate to a particular person — such as an ex-wife or former girlfriend, female news anchor, famous athlete, or high-wealth individual — and to then connect the data to the vehicle movements of the target vehicle or person and use that information for illegal or improper purposes such as burglary, assault or kidnapping.

Paradise Valley Town Council has made significant investment in giving the Paradise Valley Police Department surveilance tools at the cutting-edge of technology. (File photo)

Where the data goes

Lt. Cole says license plate reader information records an image of every license plate that passes through 11 fixed locations at entrances to the municipality.

“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,” he said. “That imagery and data is securely transmitted to a server at the police department.”

Although records sought by the Independent included photo radar information, Lt. Cole points out the systems work independently of each other and only two intersections — Lincoln Drive and Palo Cristi Road and Tatum Boulevard and McDonald Drive — have both automated machines at work.

“LPR software attempts to identify a license plate from the vehicle photo and then checks that license plate against a hotlist,” he said of in-the-moment license plate data analysis. “The hotlist is provided to Arizona 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.”

Lt. Cole explains the hotlist data is comprised of stolen vehicles, stolen license plates, vehicles registered to wanted persons, and various emergency alert systems.

“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,” Lt. Cole said.

“These local entries are only used by the PVPD (license plate reader) 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.”

In May of this year, the Paradise Valley Police Department’s information technology areas were in drastic need of updates. (File photos)

From there, Lt. Cole explains, PVPD dispatch will check the plate information through live access to the Arizona Criminal Justice Information System to verify the hotlist is still active on the license plate.

“Officers will then attempt to locate the vehicle and make 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,” Lt. Cole said.

Lt. Cole explains an officer’s reasonable suspicion, which could ultimately include a traffic stop and detention, in this case would be speeding or an expired registration.

“The LPR system attempts to photograph and identify every license plate that passes through a monitored lane of traffic,” Lt. Cole said.

“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.”

Lt. Cole also points out there is no video of motorists through the usage of license plate readers.

“We cannot see motorists at all,” he said. “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.”

This file photo shows Paradise Valley Police officials outlining what would eventually become its strategic plan, which largely hinges upon technological upgrades. (File photo)

Transparency as a core value

Lt. Cole explains at the police department transparency is playing a large role in much of the decisions being made as new technology is being implemented.

“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,” he said, but points out not all information is meant for public dissemination.

“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.”

Lt. Cole says collecting such important data requires great responsibility.

“We never want this data to be used for anything other than valid law enforcement purposes,” he said.

“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.”

Furthermore, Lt. Cole points out data kept is rudimentary identifying only date, time and location.

“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,” he said of concerns around personal information protections. “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.”

A view of an entryway into the Town of Paradise Valley along Tatum Boulevard. (File photo)

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at

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