Austin police could soon begin using license plate reader technology for the first time in years, although the program's return may hinge on the contested issue of how long police are able to keep vehicle data on hand.

How we got here

Automatic license plate readers, or ALPRs, have been used by police to identify vehicles that may have been stolen or linked to a crime. ALPRs were previously in use at the Austin Police Department, but the high-speed cameras were shelved when the police budget was reduced and reallocated in 2020.

Last summer, Council Member Mackenzie Kelly suggested restarting the ALPR program, a move she said could help police identify stolen vehicles, investigate high-priority crimes and locate missing people. Kelly's original proposal would have funded the plate readers, updated APD policy on their use and related officer training, and required an annual audit of the data collection system.

At the time, some community and City Council members expressed unease about expanding the police surveillance system, Concerns were raised over the potential for privacy violations and abuse of the data along with whether the program could end up being used for immigration- or abortion-related enforcement the Austin City Council has acted to reduce over time.

Discussion on those issues pushed off a final vote on the ALPR reboot for weeks. The original proposal was adjusted to focus the program's scope and set guardrails for the cameras' use, including rules about how license plate data could be stored and shared. Council also set a maximum 30-day data retention period before ALPR information must be deleted.

The updated ALPR policies have moved through several public reviews since council's vote last September, most recently with the Austin Public Safety Commission's May 15 recommendation in favor of the program—as long as it lines up with council's requirements and recent guidance from the Austin Office of Police Oversight. The public review process also resulted in edits to the APD's policy for its use of ALPRs.

Read more from Community Impact about the push to bring back license plate readers, further discussion of the technology’s use and council’s conditional approval of the program's return.

Current situation

ALPR funding is back on council's agenda June 1 alongside a resolution backed by some council members that would revise a key program guideline.

A five-year contract with national ALPR provider Flock Safety would cost $114,000 in fiscal year 2022-23 and $244,000 in each of the four following years. The contract would bring 40 new cameras to the APD and cover related setup, training and management costs.

Separately, the resolution from Council Member Ryan Alter would cut the APD's data retention period down from one month to one week. Alter's resolution is supported by Council Members Vanessa Fuentes, José Velásquez and Chito Vela—who led on council's program revisions last year.

During a May 30 discussion of the topic, Kelly and APD Assistant Chief Jeff Greenwalt said a 30-day retention period is a national standard and the only amount of time that's been referenced during the recent ALPR review. Greenwalt also said the one-month timeline represents a concession made by police to get the program back; previous APD policy allowed data to be kept for a full year.

“We took 30 days because 30 days is better than nothing,” he said.

However, Alter said that persisting concerns about the program mean he and some of his colleagues are unlikely to move it forward unless council backs the shortened time frame. After Kelly suggested a compromise of 15 days, Alter said ALPRs wouldn't be funded with that measure in place.

“If such an amendment was passed, it is my belief that the ultimate tool itself and the contract that we have to approve for it would not be approved,” Alter said.

Regardless of the details, the ALPR program—if approved—would return as a trial that City Council could either halt or extend before making it a permanent feature at the APD.

The police department's latest ALPR policy may be viewed here.

What's next

Alter and three co-sponsors are supporting a seven-day data retention limit while Kelly has formally requested a 15-day period. It remains to be seen how the rest of the dais will tackle the topic June 1.

Both Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis and Council Member Alison Alter suggested the 30-day timeline originally proposed may be most useful for the APD. Ellis said a trial run with a shorter data time frame could also skew the analysis of the program's effectiveness.

“I’m afraid we would miss the information if we stop with seven [days]. We won’t have the data about, would we have caught it on day eight or 14 or 20, whatever that number would be,” Ellis said.

She and Alison Alter both said additional time is especially important to detectives working on sex crimes and within APD's Victim Services Division. A one-week limit could hamper efforts to identify sexual assault suspects and repeat offenders, Alison Alter said.

“For the sexual assault victims in particular and other victims, they need to have this tool,” she said.

Ryan Alter and Vela each linked civil liberties and privacy concerns to their opposition to a longer time frame.

“There are always things we could do that would have led to catching additional perpetrators of crimes, right?” Ryan Alter said. “If we had cameras at every corner throughout the city, we would catch more people than we do today. But there are civil liberty concerns, practical concerns, and so we have to figure out what’s the right balance.”

Vela, who shared similar thoughts during last year's discussions, said the program is more extensive than originally thought and prone to misuse. He also said police already have the option of pulling license plate information from places such as private businesses, garages and area toll roads for investigations.

“The reality is that the civil liberties implications become more serious when you’re capturing just about every vehicle in the city of Austin and establishing, essentially, the whereabouts of every person in the city of Austin and putting it in a police database,” Vela said. “I completely believe and know they’re going to do their best to safeguard it. But as we’ve seen with national security databases, CIA databases, all of a sudden stuff gets out, and that kind of data’s always abused too.”