Acworth PD's license plate recognition system is mounted on the rear of a patrol car.
ACWORTH, GA-- The patrol car in Acworth was a bit of a trailblazer in 2010. That's when the department mounted three stationary cameras on the rear of the car -- designed to scan traffic, snap still images of license plates, then match the tag number with a national database.
"And it's checking for wanted people, stolen cars, stolen tags, things like that," said Capt. Mark Cheatham.
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They're called "license plate recognition" systems or LPRs, and they're increasingly becoming fixtures on police vehicles across the country. Acworth police say they have retained in a database every image taken by their LPR system, including the time and location of each image.
That includes the vast majority of images that have never produced a police investigation.
"All the information is kept in house," said Cheatham. "And should there be a need to look and see if we've ever had contact with a specific vehicle, then we can research that." Cheatham says the police images are subject to release under the state Open Records Act.
And that raises questions among critics
"With this technology, it constitutes a significant invasion of our privacy," said Chad Brock, staff attorney for the ACLU of Georgia. "Law enforcement can see what types of ... political events we're attending, what churches we are attending. That creates a whole host of constitutional concerns."
Critics say say the state should put limits on how long police can retain surveillance images that aren't part of active law enforcement investigations. "We do not believe it's acceptable to retain information indefinitely, particularly when you have collected data on innocent individuals," Brock said.
Acworth police counter they are merely gathering images on public streets that anybody can gather -- with camera equipment that's available commercially.