- Associated Press - Saturday, January 7, 2017

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) - City council members in Chattanooga have raised privacy concerns over the police department’s practice of photographing and storing license plate information.

Police Chief Fred Fletcher discussed the matter with the council recently as part of an ongoing conversation concerning the balance of intelligence-gathering technology and privacy rights, the Chattanooga Times Free Press (http://bit.ly/2j1E4TJ) reported.

License plate readers are valuable crime-fighting tools that do the same thing police officers do every day, only “much faster and much more comprehensively,” he said.

“It’s the exact same thing, except instead of having a human being doing it with a radio and a dispatcher, it’s being done with a camera and a little bit of technology,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher said cameras mounted on patrol cars automatically photograph license plates. Special software is used to compare tag numbers to lists of plates associated with stolen vehicles or other investigations.

“If there is a hit, it sends an audio and visual notice to the officer,” Fletcher said. “The officer then has to confirm that photograph actually matches the license plate, and confirm if the hit is actually a good hit.”

The department would like to deploy stationary plate-readers at street “choke points” in violence-prone areas, Fletcher said. They would help in criminal investigations and intelligence-gathering and analysis

Councilman Yusuf Hakeem said the idea of tracking people’s movements may feel like Big Brother, but the community has given the police department plenty of grief over crime.

Councilwoman Carol Berz said she worried about the department storing all license plate photographs, even if they are not connected to stolen vehicles or investigations.

Fletcher said the department database keeps license plate photos for 365 days, but does not keep associated personal identifying information.

“There’s obviously identification, because all you have to do is look up my license plate,” Berz said. “The fact that there’s no personal identification is kind of illusory.”

Fletcher said the police department has a draft policy in place to prevent misuse of data, much like it does for body-worn cameras.

“For a community that has the type of challenges that we have with crime and street violence, we’re a little bit behind the curve on this type of technology,” Fletcher said.

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Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, http://www.timesfreepress.com

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