Group wants Dayton to put the brakes on license plate readers

The Coalition on Public Protection is calling on Dayton leaders to postpone a public hearing slated for July 20 about automated license plate readers, claiming police have not shared impartial information and data that suggest these devices effectively reduce crime or achieve important law enforcement goals.

“It’s just plain and simple, all we are asking is for the commission to abide by the ordinance that they set,” said Barbara Thomas, an independent living specialist and youth transition coordinator at the Access Center for Independent Living, which is part of the coalition. “Transparency and accountability should remain the standard, not just for the general population, but for those that lead and also protect.”

The Dayton Police Department plans to host a public hearing about automated license plate readers on July 20.

Members of the public can submit comments about the proposed technology to the city through Wednesday, July 13, which will be published online the following day.

The Dayton Police Department wants to deploy license plate readers in every patrol vehicle and purchase and install fixed-site readers in some neighborhoods.

The cameras scan license plate numbers and capture information about vehicles’ makes, models, colors and other information, like the presence of bumper stickers or roof racks.

Officers receive alerts when vehicles are stolen, linked to certain crimes or the registered owners have warrants, police said.

Police also say they will be able to check the database when they are trying to identify vehicles that may be connected to serious crimes.

“The ALPRs are a law enforcement tool meant to provide sworn personnel with an easily searchable database that will allow them to identify vehicles linked to specific criminal incidents, as well as past locations of the vehicles,” the Dayton Police Department said in an impact report.

The police department is required to produce and publish impact reports and proposed policies for new police surveillance technologies before they are considered for acquisition and adoption.

These requirements were passed last year by the Dayton City Commission, which said this would increase police transparency, accountability and oversight.

“The process is really about establishing safeguards that include transparency and oversight and approval and accountability measures to protect civil rights before new technology is used or purchased,” Melissa Bertolo, a member of the coalition, said during a police surveillance discussion hosted online by the Dayton Unit NAACP earlier this year.

The Coalition on Public Protection says the police department’s impact report and proposed policies contain “opinions” and unsupported claims instead of impartial data.

“The police have also failed to provide any independent (non-law enforcement) reports showing ALPRs are effective,” the coalition said in a statement urging people to contact the city commissioners to ask for a postponement of the public hearing. “They have ignored independent reports that call into question the efficacy of ALPRs.”

The coalition consists of members and representatives of groups including Latinos Unidos, Leaders for Equality and Action in Dayton, Miami Valley Immigration Coalition, Dayton Hispanic Chamber, the Dayton Unit NAACP and Black Lives Matter Dayton.

Dayton should delay the public hearing because allowing it to happen would send the message that police do not have to abide by the city’s ordinance, said Jennie Valdez, vice chair of Latinos Unidos.

“This sets an alarming precedent for any and all future issues that are to be governed by the police surveillance technology ordinance,” she said.

Coalition members have said they fear information from the plate readers could be shared with outside agencies, like federal immigration authorities, and the alert system could have false positives that will result in officers mistakenly pulling over cars and motorists.

Members also have said the technology could unnecessarily increase police-citizen interactions that have the potential to escalate into incidents where police use force.

About 29 fixed-site automated license plate readers were temporarily installed in two city neighborhoods in 2020 as part of a pilot program.

The police impact report highlights data that suggest crime declined 43% in the Twin Towers neighborhood and 10% in Walnut Hills between 2018 and 2020.

But crime declined by 20% in Twin Towers the year before the devices were installed (between 2018 and 2019), and crime actually increased nearly 6% in Walnut Hills between 2019 and 2020.

Dayton police say plate readers are investigative tools that will help officers identify and apprehend suspects.

Mobile plate readers automate what officers do manually, and they will help solve serious felony offenses, like stolen vehicles, homicides and aggravated robberies, the impact report states.

Police say the cost of the technology is negligible because cruisers already have that capability — it just needs to be activated. The department has federal grant money to install fixed-site readers in 2022 and 2023.

Derrick Foward, president of the Dayton Unit NAACP, said he and members of the unit’s leadership team will be out of town next week for the NAACP national convention, and they would like to have an opportunity to speak at the public hearing.

“The Dayton Unit NAACP would humbly ask the city to push back the hearing so all reasonable voices are heard at the table,” he said. “We want to be intimately engaged in the hearing process.”

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