The Austin Police Department’s license plate reader program could be poised to return to city streets two years after it was removed as part of Austin officials’ historic reallocation of public safety resources in 2020.

In pushing for the refunding of the data collection program this year, police representatives have said automatic license plate readers, or ALPRs, are a key resource that can speed up APD’s crime-solving process. Police credited ALPRs for leading to the arrests of suspects in several recent sexual assault, kidnapping and shooting investigations while pitching the program to City Council members this spring. However, some council members expressed concerns about the tool's impact on Austin residents' privacy.

“The purpose of that program is to keep our community safe by solving crimes quicker and locating and identifying violent offenders more quickly. We firmly believe that this will in turn prevent further violence by apprehending [suspects] before they can reoffend and a lot of time help to seize the guns that they used in those offenses by catching them quickly,” APD Cmdr. Jeff Greenwalt said in May.

City Council was set to consider the potential return of ALPRs during its July 28 regular meeting but pushed a discussion of the topic into August ahead of a final vote on the city's fiscal year 2022-23 budget. Fourteen APD vehicles are already equipped with ALPRs, and new funding of nearly $115,000 would support their reactivation.

Council did briefly take up the topic, sponsored by District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, during their work session July 26. A draft resolution from Kelly, if approved by city officials, would see ALPR operations restored beginning in October. Kelly's measure also calls on city management to reevaluate relevant APD training and privacy policies tied to the data collection if the program is reactivated.

“For me, this is a matter of life safety for people in the community. If we can save one child who is abducted or if we can help one victim of a heinous crime get justice, then that’s worth it to me,” Kelly said July 26. “I think that’s something that we can all work together as a council to ensure that this data is protected and that it’s utilized in a way that will really be OK with all of us and be right for the community.”

Several officials had expressed skepticism about APD’s monitoring of drivers citywide, whether the program would lead to disparate outcomes among Austinites and the potential harms that could stem from other law enforcement agencies accessing a database of Austin license plates. Concerns also included the program's possible use for surveillance related to reproductive health care.

“I cannot support the creation of a database that then can be later fished through for potential criminal activity. That has major civil liberties implications, and we know—I’ve seen it with national security agencies; we’ve seen it just about with every law enforcement agency or intelligence agency that has ever collected this information—that the information will then be fished through for other purposes,” District 4 Council Member Chito Vela said.

An in-depth review of APD use-of-force incidents and traffic stops covering some of the time period when ALPRs were in use was completed by city consultants Kroll Associates earlier this year. Researchers found disparities between the outcomes of stops and the city's overall demographics but said those results did not conclusively point to bias in the police force.

If APLR funding is reauthorized, several council members also called for additional guardrails on the program and tweaks to its rollout. Among the changes that could be made are the reduction of ALPR data retention from a one-year standard down to one month; a requirement that outside agencies report why they need license plate data when seeking access to APD’s database; and the creation of an updated use policy for the program crafted with public input. While APD did have policies in place regarding the use and access of license plate information, District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen also asked APD to consider blocking any other agency from accessing Austin’s data entirely.

“We as APD control the data, so if there is a certain agency that we do not want to have that data, we actually have to give permission to the departments that are requesting the data,” Assistant Chief Jason Staniszewski said. “We have complete control of the information that’s gathered, how long it’s kept and where it goes.”

In written responses to questions from council, police noted regardless of their own program, license plate readers remain in use locally by other agencies—although their databases are inaccessible by APD. Police staff also said APD would ban the use of ALPRs on “warrant roundup operations” and that the technology would not be used to collect fines or issue lower-level citations if it is brought back.

Council will decide whether to fund Austin’s license plate program and put additional oversight in place during the budget approval process in August.