License plate reading technology. (Photo: Getty Images)
On Tuesday night, Metro Nashville Council passed a controversial ordinance to allow Metro Nashville police use of license plate reader technology as part of a 6-month pilot, despite concerns by council members and civil rights advocates about the lack of safeguards protecting individual rights.
“I think it’s irresponsible to pass a vote that’s not fully fleshed out,” said Councilmember Sandra Sepulveda. “These are people’s lives at stake.”
For nearly two years, critics and advocates in Nashville have debated over whether license plate reader technology, or LPRs, prevent crime or infringe upon individual rights.
Officials with the Metro Nashville Police Department and the Nashville Department of Transportation (NDOT) have argued that LPRs would allow police to quickly respond to dangerous situations involving vehicles, including Amber Alerts, Silver Alerts, vehicle theft, burglaries and related crimes in which identifying the vehicle could make or break a case.
In a letter to Nashville Vice-Mayor Jim Shulman, MNPD Chief John Drake and NDOT director Diana Alarcon referred to a recent event in Arizona in which use of LPRs led police to recover a Sumner County child who was the subject of an Amber Alert. Apart from kidnappings, LPRs could assist with solving the almost 30% of Nashville auto accidents that are hit and runs.
“We want LPRs, we think that they’re incredible tools as long as they are utilized appropriately with the proper protections for the citizens, with the proper policies and procedures in place,” said MNPD Capt. Carlos Laura.
But the technology isn’t without controversy.
Police municipalities surrounding Nashville are already using LPR technology, and in 2021, a data entry error in Nashville led to a woman being detained in Mt. Juliet, with police believing she was driving a stolen vehicle.
Under state law, police departments statewide are already able to use LPR technology and data cannot be stored for more than 90 days unless it’s part of an ongoing investigation, but each city can decide how LPRs can be used.
“There’s laws already out there, but the chief has not wanted to use them yet until he sees what legislation is passed and then he’ll make a decision on how to move forward,” said Laura.
Mt. Juliet police cannot detain suspects unless the license plate in question is part of an open case or on the National Crime Information Center database, otherwise known as a hot list. Technology records are also only kept for 30 days, said Mt. Juliet Police Department spokesperson Tyler Chandler.
“It’s helpful to know too that when the system alerts on a vehicle, it’s already a known criminal vehicle so it gives our officers that intelligence ahead of time,” said Chandler. “We get that intelligence ahead of time so we can make safer traffic stops, or what we call pursuit prevention plans.”
While errors can occur, they are marginal, he said.
“Once it’s immediately determined it’s an error, we try to work on the error and contact the other agencies to fix it so this person doesn’t get stopped again,” he said, adding that he’s only seen two incidents since their system has been operational.
In Nashville, LPRs will not be used for minor traffic infractions or to identify speeders or occupants in vehicles, and LPR data will not be shared with any type of immigration enforcement. LPR data is also confidential and cannot be accessed through public records requests.
“For the past year, the council has thoroughly and productively debated the use of license plate readers. The result is legislation BL2021-961, that provides a strong framework for LPR use and a framework that will be used responsible and transparently,” wrote Drake and Alarcon.
But despite assurances that the technology won’t be used by outside forces, critics warned that the police department cannot provide guarantees.
Councilmember Bob Mendes has actively opposed the ordinance, which he calls “terribly written,” and said there’s too many unanswered questions about who has access to the LPR database while community groups are given limited access.
“And even the access that’s allowed to the public defender says it’s subject to state and federal law,” said Mendes. “In theory, even the (district attorney) and MNPD’s access can be limited by the state, but more importantly, it sets up the police department to be in charge of the data and in charge of coming up with policies, in charge of overseeing the people who run the LPR data and in charge of auditing themselves, and it’s not much of an audit if you’re auditing yourselves.”
Mendes was one of 14 Metro Council Members to vote against use of LPRs.
Sepulveda is also concerned about how MNPD will use the LPR technology.
“They’re writing the policy, they use the policy, they can fit whatever they want. There’s not enough oversight. They kept saying ‘we fleshed this out. We have oversight to prevent certain things from happening and safeguarding,’ but that’s not it. That’s not what the legislation says,” said Sepulveda.
According to MNPD spokesperson April Weatherly, LPR data would have to honor subpoenas for LPR databases, although the request would have to go through the U.S. Department of Justice.
Several groups have voiced their opposition to LPR technology, including the Community Oversight Board (COB), who voted against the use of LPRs in December.
“However, should (the) council wish to proceed with this legislation, it is the COB’s strong view that it should have equal authority to audit LPRs as the district attorney and public defender,” wrote COB chair Andrés Martinez in a letter to council members.
Other groups that have opposed LPRs include immigrant-rights and civil-rights organizations who believe in limiting police interactions, including the American-Muslim Advisory Council, Conexión Americas, Open Table Nashville and Workers Dignity.
“I’m very sensitive about trying to pull last Thursday’s events into the LPR bill but I don’t see why we should be coming up with reasons for traffic stops in Nashville that has a known error rate to it,” said Mendes, referring to a police-involved shooting of 37-year-old Landon Eastep.
Mendes supports efforts to find common ground with the benefits of LRP technology.
“Some think that technology can’t be contained. Once you plug it in, there will be access to it broader than what people want, but if there was a minimum common ground, it would be Amber Alerts and missing persons,” he said.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.