Opinion: License plate readers rollout requires fairness, intention

Staff file photo/Olivia Ross / One of Chattanooga Police Departments license plate reader cameras is seen along West 38th Street on Monday, Oct. 23, 2023.

Will Hamilton County become a surveillance state?

That question seems reasonable to ask, as 122 license plate readers will be placed across the county. Chattanooga will receive 35 stationary cameras; East Ridge gets 15; and Red Bank will have seven. The Sheriff's Office will deploy 59 in unincorporated parts of the county.

And there are cameras already in use around here. For example, the Soddy-Daisy Police Department used a $43,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security to add about 16 license plate readers across the city.

The issues with these automated plated readers is the loss of privacy and access law enforcement has to vehicle/motorist information and the power that goes with that information.

Transparency must be a component of the LPRs' use in Chattanooga and surrounding communities.

During their Wednesday meeting, Hamilton County commissioners unanimously accepted a $1.2 million state grant to purchase and install the cameras. Hamilton County Sheriff Austin Garrett told commissioners he doesn't believe law enforcement will abuse the technology.

"It's not overreach," Garrett said. "One of the reasons I was elected by the people in this county was to be efficient, be a visionary and implement ideas and methods to reduce crime. This does that."

Garrett seems confident that the plate readers are not "overreach" but his words don't offer a sense of accountability if this power is abused.

"I understand concerns. The state wouldn't approve this if it wasn't legal," Garrett told commissioners. "I, as your sheriff, No. 1 would not propose this if I felt it goes against our vision at the Sheriff's Office, which is leading the way of law enforcement."

The "state" that Garrett is referring to, of course, controlled by the GOP that has doesn't see a limit to the resources it allocates to law enforcement. For instance, this year the state provided $60 million to support recruitment and retention bonuses for law enforcement, created the $150 million Violent Crime Intervention Fund and allocated $415 million for a Multi-Agency Law Enforcement Training Academy in Nashville. That money could be better used to support mental health services, public libraries, even community or alternative policing programs or strategies.

License plate readers may be creative or "visionary," but where are the "visionary" and creative approaches to policing and funding for those approaches?

State overreach?

License plate readers have become a go-to tool for law enforcement; Hamilton County and the municipalities within in are far from the only ones tapping into this technology. In August, Nashville approved full implementation of the cameras after a six-month pilot program. According to Metro Nashville Police Department data, the city has 117 cameras across the Nashville-Davidson County area.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, recently said that he believes that plate readers are essential to police work.

"LPRs are important law enforcement tools that help save lives and solve crimes," Lamberth recently told Axios. "I would hope that any city would seriously consider using them to improve the safety of their community."

That's fine, but he went a step too far with his next statement.

"If for some reason, cities do not take advantage of this life-saving technology, then we will probably re-evaluate whether this is a local decision to be made there," he said. Now, that's state overreach.

Lamberth paints license plate readers as the best way to perform surveillance correctly, but the threat of abuse is a great concern. The expanded use of these cameras requires a much more detailed, intentional effort to inform the community on the rollout of the cameras.

State law notes that data collected by license plate readers cannot be stored for more than 90 days unless it's part of an active investigation. But what policies are in place locally to make sure the law is followed?

Remember what's fair

To be sure, there are instances in which plate readers have prevented crime, helped police apprehend criminals, locate stolen vehicles, resolve AMBER Alerts and save lives. That should not be surprising given widespread access to information of thousands of people. That access, that power, shouldn't just be given to anyone without full transparency to the public.

If police and state lawmakers support the use of license plate readers but not a police oversight board that can hold officers accountable when they misuse their power, it becomes exploitation. Underlying the issue is just how much trust does the community have in our law enforcement agencies? Not just one community, all communities.

With expanded surveillance technology, the burden is on law enforcement to use it wisely, be transparent at a time when trust in law enforcement has eroded. Law enforcement must work extra hard to build trust in how this technology is used.

Let's hope that it is fair.