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Eye On Illinois: Lawmakers should consider regulating license plate cameras

Force-multiplying technology.

If your city council or police chief hasn’t yet uttered those buzzwords, chances are they will soon. These days the term applies to LPRs – license plate reading cameras – which police authorities vow aren’t being used for surveillance, but strictly as crime-fighting tools.

In August, the Illinois State Patrol announced receipt of a $1.25 million grant to install LPRs, and several municipal police departments have similar rollout plans.

“This is an important step toward expanding force-multiplying technology we have long needed to protect the public traveling on Chicago expressways,” ISP Director Brendan Kelly said at the time. “These cameras will be an increasingly important tool for the ISP to collect the evidence we need to detect and deter crime on our interstates.”

Discussing the technology in September, Sycamore Police Chief Jim Winters said his department has been evaluating LPRs and is looking for grant money to purchase a set. DeKalb bought a dozen on a five-year contract worth $145,865. Police Chief David Byrd told Shaw Media’s Katie Finlon the devices are a tool “to combat criminal activity,” not scanning plates for expired or suspended registrations.

“We are only using this resource for felonious vehicles,” Byrd said “They come into the city of DeKalb, and at that point, that’s when the whole process will be triggered.”

That echoes Winters, who said 70% of crimes involve a vehicle and that “If you can get more leads on a vehicle, you … would have a better chance of solving an investigation.”

In September the Daily Herald reported Palatine has mobile LPRs on two patrol vehicles, which it uses to manage downtown parking. Vernon Hills put 10 cameras online a year ago. One provider said it has contracts with 30 Chicagoland departments.

Anyone who has had a car stolen would be happy to know a modern LPR network could determine the vehicle’s general location. The same is true for victims of hit-and-run collisions, or for those who can link a theft to a getaway car.

But anyone who has gotten a ticket from a red-light or a speed camera – or read about the corruption associated with the contracts and programming of such tools – is probably reluctant to accept promises like those from Vernon Hills Chief Patrick Kreis, who said “these are not collecting troves of data. … This has nothing to do with revenue. It’s not used for traffic enforcement.”

No Illinois law explicitly regulates these devices. That’s worth exploring, especially in conjunction with House Bill 4015, which would ban the state from issuing license plates with global positioning system technology. Concerns about surveillance overreach are founded. Although the upside potential is clear, government hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.