Dayton considering major expansion of police license plate readers

Police say the cameras help solve crime and locate suspects; critics say the city didn’t follow its own rules for implementing surveillance technology.

Dayton is considering buying nearly three dozen new fixed-site automated license plate readers, which would nearly double the police department’s supply of the stationary devices.

Police officials say plate readers can quickly identify stolen cars and vehicles that are connected to serious crimes and many residents want this technology deployed in their neighborhoods.

“This technology has been really critical in solving some high-profile cases across the spectrum,” said Dayton police Major Paul Saunders. “There’s never been a time we’ve had a greater need for this type of technology than we have right now.”

However, some community members say once again the police department has not followed its own rules for adopting and significantly expanding police surveillance technologies.

They have raised concerns about privacy implications, potential misuse of the data the devices collect and whether the technology is truly effective.

“The proposed contract is in violation of the (city’s surveillance tech) ordinance which requires a public hearing for existing technology used in a different manner, scope or scale,” said Melissa Bertolo, a member of the Coalition on Public Protection, which is group of community members focused on oversight of police technology.

The city is considering paying a company called Flock $825,750 to purchase and install 35 new fixed-site plate readers and maintain the 37 the city already has installed.

The contract with Flock would last through the end of 2028.

The contract was on the Dayton City Commission’s agenda at its last meeting, but the item was removed after a couple of commissioners raised concerns about the proposal.

Dayton City Commissioner Shenise Turner-Sloss said the contract was pulled partly because there was no public hearing for the proposed use of new fixed-site plate readers.

She said she thinks this does not adhere with the requirements of a city ordinance that regulates the deployment of new police surveillance technology.

She also said police have not provided a report that shows the effectiveness of the technology, though this is required by city ordinance.

“I hope that information can be provided,” she said.

Major Saunders said this technology is not new and has been used a long time.

Police fairly recently installed 11 fixed-site devices in the Twin Tower neighborhood, 10 in Old North Dayton, 10 in Westwood and half a dozen downtown.

Dayton police vehicles also are equipped with automated license plate readers that scan license plates as officers drive around on patrol.

The cameras were installed in city neighborhoods at the direct requests of residents in those communities to address specific safety issues, Sauders said.

Plate readers are only installed in neighborhoods want them and if an analysis of crime data supports their deployment, Saunders said.

Saunders described the technology as “exceptional” and he said without a doubt it helps solve crimes.

Saunders said the city has had more than 2,200 vehicles stolen this year, and plate readers instantly alert officers when they scan license plates of stolen cars and trucks.

The plate readers have helped solve homicide cases, aggravated robberies and other violent crimes by quickly providing police with information about suspect vehicles, Saunders said.

“This technology gives us swift, actionable intelligence,” he said. “Just a few years ago, a lot of this information would have required days of investigation and follow-up, and by then, who knows what other crimes may have occurred.”

The Dayton Police Department lost more than 50 police officers this year to retirements and resignations, and plate readers are a big help at a time of limited resources, Saunders said.

Members of the Coalition on Public Safety said a major expansion of the police department’s license plate reader capabilities should be supported by “overwhelming, objective, data-driven evidence” that the technology reduces or deters crime.

They said the technology and the data it collects can be misused and the devices can contribute to overpolicing.

Bertolo, a coalition member, said the police department does not have a policy for the plate readers that ensures community members’ civil rights are protected and the data the devices collect are not improperly used.

Dayton police say the department uses the technology responsibly and there are privacy safeguards in place. But some community members say they do not believe this to be true.

Dayton City Commissioner Chris Shaw said many people want these devices in their neighborhoods and technology helps out during a time of police staffing challenges.

“In these trying times that we’re in now, with the limited staff we have, I just think it’s important to use all of the technology that we can,” he said.

Saunders said the Huffman neighborhood has requested license plate readers, and the downtown community want more devices in the center city.

Dayton police said they did not know at this time what other neighborhoods could get new plate readers.

Police said grant funding would be used to pay for the new devices and their operation.

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