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Monday, May 21, 2012



Come to Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention in September, 2012, and you’ll likely be caught on many surveillance cameras, Department of Transportation cameras, and License Plate Readers mushrooming all over the City.

Total spending on all surveillance cameras, monitors, processors, data storage, IT personnel, maintenance, police and other personnel to operate the equipment, legal costs, and other costs are unknown at this time.  CMPD reports a “new $1.73 million video observation center” in addition to a new multi-agency Command Center similarly outfitted with surveillance and communication equipment.

Car-mounted reader like CMPD uses
Most recently though, Charlotte’s City Council approved $209,268 of Asset Forfeiture spending for License Plate Readers on March 26, 2012. 

Then on Monday, May 14, 2012, Council approved another $606,871 to be spent against a Federal USAI (Urban Area Security Initiative Grant) Grant to purchase automated license plate readers and related equipment from an existing unit price contract with NDI Recognition Systems as well. That contract was approved by City Council on June 9, 2008 and was for an initial three-year term with two additional one-year terms.  That money will be spent on:

·        Five automated license plate processors

·        37 cameras and cables

·        Related equipment

·        Installation

·        Maintenance

·        Site licensing
The new equipment enables CMPD to expand its use of automated license plate readers throughout the city.

The city’s explanation for the AF purchase includes:  Staff Resource: Harold Medlock, Police

  CMPD began using automated license plate readers in 2008 to capture license plate information and vehicle descriptions. The data is used for comparison against stolen or wanted vehicle alerts listed with the National Crime Information Center. The data has proven to be a useful investigative and predictive tool for police.

  Police want to appropriate $209,268 in assets forfeiture funds to purchase four mobile automated license plate readers and two portable “rapid deployment” automated license plate reader systems. These devices are an extension of the automated license plate reader system now being used in four CMPD patrol vehicles. The new technology provides more flexibility in deployment of the license plate readers.

Wording of “and predictive tool” indicates police will use stored data.  If they only stored data of known criminal activity, there wouldn’t be cause for concern.  However, the Automated License Plate Readers, called ALPR’s or just LPR’s, read and take in enormous amounts of data about the travels and associations of innocent citizens.

There was not one minute of public debate, information, or question in advance of these “consent” items to purchase and install surveillance equipment all over the city with absolutely no controls on their use.

There has been no mention in any network news or paper to be found about the installation of these stationary and mounted cameras all over Charlotte, collecting and storing millions of records of travel data of Charlotte’s citizens and visitors.


The other interesting note in the city’s explanation for purchase is “The data ‘has proven’ to be a useful investigative and predictive tool for police.”   What use has there been to justify spending this money, nearly a million dollars, plus all the money dating back to 2008 on LPR’s?

May the citizens of Charlotte see this proof that is offered and discuss if it’s the best use of police funds?  Maybe the money could have accomplished the same license benefits and also hired more officers, provided wider training, better safety equipment for officers, raises, or some other good use.  It’s a lot of money.


If you read this previous citynewswatch post, you saw that the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for mobile LPR operation is dated 4/29/11 and was only available by searching through a research institution’s web site.  This SOP for car-mounted LPR’s is not located on in the same area as all other (known) SOP’s. 

There is no known SOP to cover stationary, mounted LPR camera units at all.  Since we are about to purchase at least 5 additional processors along with 37 cameras, you can bet CMPD is planning on collecting lots more citizen records, but they haven’t even proposed what they want to do with them.  No one has asked for any public input, debate or permission—except that City Council has already approved the purchase offline.

There should be debate about whether to store ANY data, and if so, for how long.  Any information not related to a criminal investigation should not be stored and should not be shared.  The car-mounted LPR SOP contains instructions that all records collected will be stored for at least 18 months, which is much too long.

Mounting the units in particular areas brings about yet a new dimension to privacy concerns because the police/government would then be choosing to target certain populations for monitoring and data collection.  If you happen to drive past one of these targeted area cameras frequently, your information will be accumulated faster than that of others.


After citynewswatch exposed plans to purchase and install more cameras just before the very quiet City Council funding actions noted above, CMPD seemed to be on a PR campaign to tell us how much we need the LPR’s and how great they are.  They fed certain limited information to a local television station claiming the cameras were brand new and were being used because of a tremendous spike noticed the prior month in license plate thefts, especially in the North Tryon Division. 

However, no crime statistics were given for the report.  CMPD crime stats found elsewhere are not consistent with that statement.  It would be ludicrous to think they noticed a spike, put out and evaluated competitive bids, then installed and trained on new equipment within a month of “noticing a huge spike in license plate thefts” anyway.
And there is certainly information contradicting the “newness” of the cameras:
The PR campaign continues as CMPD Spokesman Robert Tufano sent out an invitation May 7, 2012.  It read in part:

On Tuesday, May 8, 2012, members with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s Auto Theft Unit will unveil the latest vehicle and tag reader donated to the CMPD by Nationwide Insurance. Nationwide Insurance has been a partner in our crime fighting efforts and this is the seventh vehicle Nationwide has donated to the CMPD over the last four years.

The donated vehicle and equipment will be critical tools that will assist our detectives in reducing the number of auto thefts in our community. Please join us on Tuesday at 2:00 p.m. in front of the Police Training Academy located at 1770 Shopton Road.

For additional information please contact Sgt. Rich Tonsberg at 704.336.2292.
CMPD really wants us to focus on car thefts and license plate thefts. 

In many jurisdictions, police collect our data and then upload it to a private company database where it is stored indefinitely, as well as used and shared without proper or agreed-upon restriction. 

This turns the government into an actor in the transaction with the private company obtaining our data and invading our privacy.  This is where Fourth Amendment concerns become most acute.  As you may have read in the last post on this topic, even when there was no agreement for this data upload to occur from police to private company, it has happened such as in Washington, D.C.

Many argue “license plates are property of the government and roads are public.”  Well, that’s true but not the correct point.  Creating a dossier of your activity—tracking your comings and goings—is not the business the government should be permitted to do for innocent citizens with no probable cause to believe you are involved in criminal activity. 

It’s not the mere observation, it’s the accumulation of data by state actors—compounded often by giving that information to a private company—that’s a problem.

The circumstances that would allow surveillance of this type or specific searches and seizures of people suspected of committing crimes require Law Enforcement Officers to SWEAR AN OATH of PROBABLE CAUSE in order to obtain a WARRANT for that activity.

Innocent people (and we are all presumed innocent) walking or driving around our home city or visiting another have the right to do that in privacy which includes relative anonymity.


Vigilant Video is a private company who is compiling a massive private, national database called National Vehicle Location Service (NVLS), mostly filled with records supplied by Law Enforcement Agencies around the country—sometimes without permission—and storing them in their own, unregulated databases permanently.  Here’s how it works direct from a Vigilant Video presentation to Law Enforcement found in full here.

According to Vigilant Video,

40% of US Vehicle License Plates are Scanned Yearly.

Published reports state there are well
in excess of half a billion records in Vigilant’s database.

Page 2 includes emblems from interested parties such as the Richmond Police Department, Rodney Monroe’s old Stomping Ground, the Dept. of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, and a number of finance companies:

Page 7 shows how extensive the information contained on an LPR RECORD is:  The scan takes in the license plate, records the driver’s location, date & time of scan.  This record collection happens whether or not the driver is a wanted criminal or suspected of criminal activity.  Most of the records created are of innocent drivers. 

Page 6 explains that data comes from UPLOADS from Law Enforcement

Page 9 shows how stationary mounted readers and readers in police cars gather data which is collected in a massive warehousing at a private company, Vigilant Video.


Most officers are being given the same line as the public is now fed: these are just efficient electronic checks for illegal behavior, such as stolen cars and plates.

Most officers, if asked to follow innocent citizens and record their movements for a year and a half with no probable cause to believe they are involved in criminal activity, would refuse that unconstitutional order.  They would also ask “why?”  

Just because it’s electronic eyes instead of human eyes, with data fed to an electronic data storage mechanism instead of an officer’s notebook, that doesn’t mean the Constitution should fly out the window.

Are officers who are being asked to feed data into the system unaware that’s what is happening?  Are they solely focused on the instantaneous check, ignoring the year and a half of data collection & storage?  By purchasing and using the LPR’s in the way designed by CMPD Policy, that is exactly what is going on. 

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