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Robo-cop on patrol

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader

2012-06-05


A few weeks back Fort Wayne Police Chief Rusty York came to City Council for authorization to purchase new technology for a couple patrol cars. Over the years Rusty has built up such creditability with Council and the community that hardly the first question was asked about the nature of the equipment he had in mind.

Rusty frequently comes to Council to upgrade patrol cars. Take a ride in one: officers are closing in on Robocop status given all the electronics that surround them and technology they wear. So, Rusty read from his application, asked for questions and was quickly dismissed with a “do pass” motion. It was so abrupt that everyone had a bit of a laugh. Council could have, and probably should have, spent a bit more time on the matter.

What Rusty asked for is part of a technological revolution in law enforcement, and while the technology offers greater efficiencies in catching thugs and thieves, the systems are fraught with civil rights questions.

The equipment will allow police to prowl the streets searching for specific license plate numbers with an optical reader call the “Automated License Recognition System, ALRS. The system will allow officers to search for stolen cars while cruising in traffic or parked behind a billboard. Both oncoming, passing and parked cars can be scanned. Patrol cars can meander through neighborhoods or prowl Glenbrook’s parking lot and simply wait for the system to tell them to stop. “Ah, ha,” beeps the machine, “The license plate is stolen and does not belong to the car upon which it is mounted.” Someday the machine will emit a voice that will tell officers details, such as the crime, the record of the associated crook, a physical description, the thug’s record and other annotations that might speed the arrest and protect the officer. “Scar on his neck, tattoo on his forehead and carries a knife in his boot.”

The systems can also be deployed to issue traffic tickets for overtime parking, speeding, moving violations and more, and officers may never have to leave the comfort of their prowl cars. They can just send an SMS to parking control, who can then “boot” the car.

The system is not new. It was developed in England in the 1970s and refined over the years in Europe. The Dutch are big users, branching out from simply searching for thefts to using the electronics to measure traffic flow and adjusting timing on traffic lights. It works a bit like the drive through systems on toll roads — offering an optical scan in milliseconds.

But, in England, where the use of closed circuit camera is ubiquitous, where a citizen is photographed repeatedly as they go about their legal business and where rioters and murderers are regularly caught in the act, the system is widely accepted. The first arrest using the device was made there in 1981.

The question before us in Fort Wayne is one of privacy and abuse. Fortuitously, the system will be paid for by the Federal Government. In some jurisdictions the systems are sponsored by insurance organizations and the proceeds are split with the incentives to tweak the system to generate more aggressive fining. You may remember the case of a Fort Wayne officer a few years back who was incentivized to issue citations and make arrests. He was reassigned after public outcry, but in reality it was the design of the system that encouraged zealousness that lead to his reassignment. That could easily happen again here with this system.

Have you ever tried to argue with a computer…in a court of law, with a testy judge starring at you and a lawyer ready to tie your tongue in knots? The ALRS is not perfect, it is still in development, so differences in license plate design and fonts can lead to misreads. And, infamously, Indiana uses the same number on different vanity plates, so matching a number is not sufficient evidence. Also, the ALRS is plagued by poor resolution, grime on plates, or plates that are too reflective. All lead to technological guesses or misses. “Garbage in, garbage out” still applies.

You can imagine companies that will spring up to manage the data sending bits of a comprehensive analysis of your driving patterns to retail billing; bits to law enforcement for the issuance of fines and points; bits to planners for their various uses; and something to the divorce investigator to build a case for infidelity. Someday you will receive a bill that will encompass all of your car related transactions payable to CarPal.

You can also imagine that traffic planners will drool at the idea of building data that would show traffic patterns and prove their cases for running a road through your living room.

Over time the system will integrate with hundreds of data bases around the country, then Interpol — note on your plates the presence of a little bar code. Within our life times federal, state and local data bases will talk to each other. Within our lifetime myriad more business applications will be created. In both cases the use of technology will be used to benefit society, but will also be put to devious uses by a new generation of hackers, organized crime and petty scoundrels.

Council did the right thing in approving the system. The next step is working with legislators, prosecutors and others in other areas of government to envision the potential abuses and protect Hoosiers.

Many in Fort Wayne trust Rusty, with his compassionate smile and easy manner, but Rusty is about to retire.

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