ACLU requests Forest Park data about use of plate capturing cameras

Police plate-reading tech searches for bootable vehicles

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By Jean Lotus


The American Civil Liberties Union has included Forest Park in its study of the use by police of Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) cameras. The ACLU sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the Forest Park Police Department, Oct. 21, seeking information about the department's new ALPR.

The civil liberties group is compiling information about plate-capturing camera data from around the country. According to "You are being tracked," a report published in July, "Tens of thousands of license plate readers are now deployed throughout the United States." The ACLU worries that for every time a plate reader makes a "hit" and matches the plate of a vehicle on a boot list or reported stolen, the machines capture and store millions of other license plates of law-abiding people. 

"[License plate cameras] are capturing drivers' locations outside church, the doctor's office and school, giving law enforcement and private companies the ability to build detailed pictures of our lives," the report said. 

Forest Park received its ALPR in May of this year, purchased with a grant from one of the collection agencies that process Forest Park traffic tickets, said police Lt. Steve Weiler, who didn't specify which company that was, but the village has a contract with Municipal Collection Services Inc., in Palos Heights, which offers license plate recognition services. 

Weiler said the village paid about a third of the cost for the reader cameras, which run around $15,000. The collection agency paid $10,000. The machines were mounted in May on police vehicle Unit 637, a 2007 Ford Explorer.

The cameras on Unit 637 are used to find parked vehicles on the village "boot list" said Officer Francis Lane, who is primarily responsible for the boot list patrol. 

The vehicle is only used during the day, he said. 

In a demonstration provided to the Forest Park Review, Lane drove Unit 637 through the streets of Forest Park as well as the parking lots at the Forest Park Mall and the CTA Blue Line terminal parking. 

The two cameras on the roof's right and left side send a signal to a laptop computer mounted on the dashboard of the police vehicle. The laptop is loaded daily with data from a zip drive containing a list of all the registered vehicles and their owners on the village's boot list. Boot list data from other municipalities is not included, Lane said.

"It's amazing how many vehicles are on the boot list," Lane said. Many of the cars on the Forest Park boot list are registered in other towns, like Berwyn, Oak Park or River Forest. Police cannot cross municipal boundaries to boot those vehicles but can boot them if they enter Forest Park.

Lane also loads a daily license plate list from the National Crime Information Center, which provides a computerized index of vehicle plate numbers on stolen cars, and cars whose owners have driver's licenses tagged by the state of Illinois and the NCIC for suspended or revoked licenses.

How do vehicles end up on the boot list? Lane said car owners must have racked up at least five parking tickets. For each ticket, vehicle owners receive at least five letters with offers of court dates to pay or dispute the ticket. If the driver does not respond, they are found liable for the ticket by default. After that, the violation is turned over to a collection agency, Lane said. It takes eight or nine months after receiving five or more tickets for a vehicle to be "bootable."

"People aren't happy to get a boot on their car," Lane said. "But they're not surprised, usually. It's not like we haven't tried to contact you."

Vehicles can only be booted on the public right of way, Lane said. If he passes a boot-worthy car parked on a parking pad or other private property, he cannot boot the car. 

The cameras' infrared scanners read license plates and compare the numbers to lists within the computer using an interface called Jet Hippo, which Lane demonstrated. In one afternoon, Lane passed over 300 cars, all of which were scanned into the machine. 

The department told the ACLU a total of 66,707 plate reads had been scanned between May and the end of October. Fifty-two "hits" were recorded.

Sometimes the computer misinterprets a number. As Lane drove in the CTA lot last week, a buzzer sounded on the laptop and a screen popped up indicating a car had been stolen. Lane re-entered the license number manually and the vehicle came back "clear." 

"Sometimes it drives me crazy hitting on plates that don't concern me," he said. 

The computer system also provides a ticket-printing machine, which Lane uses when vehicles are not on the boot list but have other violations, such as expired license plates. 

As he wrote a $25 ticket in the mall parking lot for an expired license plate, he said, "I think of it as a gentle reminder that there's something wrong and you need to take care of it." 

Other municipalities use the ALPR technology to patrol moving vehicles. River Forest police recently arrested a man who passed a squad car with an ALPR camera which flagged his vehicle as reported "stolen." The man was charged with not returning a rental car that had been reported to police.

According to sales pamphlets for the technology prepared by Motorola, an ALPR unit with an added GPS can "monitor known felons and other persons of interest," with Back Office System Server (BOSS) software. This software collects and archives license plates on non-violators to "organize and archive data compiled from mobile and fixed-site ALPR deployments." The sales brochure gives an example of an officer "quietly noting the time and location of a suspicious vehicle when it passes," and then crosschecking that information with the BOSS software. 

This technology has not yet been employed in Forest Park, Lane said. 

What happens in Forest Park to the thousands of non-violating license plate numbers scanned by the ALPR camera? Lane said the computer dumps the stored plates when the system is turned off. He demonstrated by turning off the machine and then repowering it, showing no plates listed.    

Weiler said Forest Park police regularly run plates manually in their computers without any "probable cause" or "reasonable suspicion." If a driver comes up as having a revoked or suspended license, Weiler said officers will pull the car over and make an arrest.

"In these traffic stops, the officers are doing what they're supposed to be doing, looking for criminals and being proactive, as opposed to reactive." He said the practice of running license plates without probable cause has, "held up in court again and again."

The ACLU report encourages police departments to develop policies for using the license-plate readers. 

"When police departments lack policies limiting access to license plate data and monitoring its use, abuse of the technology can occur." The ACLU in Illinois has received FOIA responses from only a handful of Illinois municipalities, including Evanston, Burbank, Bellwood, Hanover Park, Lemont, Oak Forest, Streamwood, Chicago and Springfield.

Lane said he considered the plate reader a tool to help enforce the law.

"You don't have any expectation of privacy on a public street," Lane said. "The license plates are issued by the state of Illinois and displayed on the car for everybody to see."


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Reader Comments

26 Comments - Add Your Comment

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Comment Policy

weinersnitzel from ForestPark, Indiana  

Posted: December 30th, 2013 7:32 PM

You people sound like high school babys LOL

Bill D  

Posted: December 29th, 2013 7:34 PM

Oh, Pee, "-30-"? How utterly journalistically-minded of you, so to speak. You jus' so clever, son. Almost on a par with the Bear's defensive scheme.

Fast Eddie from FoPo  

Posted: December 29th, 2013 7:15 PM

I see that Billy dink-a-link is up to his usual carpet bagging tricks again over on FPF. When he gets road blockd here with his asinine comments he jumps over there to relieve himself. It must help the psycologically challenged. Bill we do hope you feel better. -30-

Bill D  

Posted: December 29th, 2013 4:09 PM

Btw, goofs like Fast Pee and Osbtrudy like to carp on the non-old time Forest Parker status of myself and others, but there's nary a peep out of them regarding a two-bit carpetbagger like Commissioner Tom Mannix, who moved here in 2010 and immediately started treating this town like a political fiefdom. Now it turns out this politically motivated jerk is costing the village unnecessary expense. For details, of to-

FE so wrong  

Posted: December 29th, 2013 3:25 PM

@BD "They see the political process as ... cast their votes and then shut up." Agree that's what they preach, but inter-election they sure spend a lot of time spinning here in comments. @ Observer projecting much? How about: "... actions of a certain FP commish who migrated to FP, inserted himself into the political scene ... use[s] various forms of media (billboards, anon websites) as his platform. Were the biases ? there at the beginning (eg. when doing PR for the IL Repub caucus) ...?"

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: December 29th, 2013 1:02 PM

FWIW people might want to ask their elected leaders about the July, 2012 conference they held with the village's law firm regarding the "May 8, 2012 Order and Opinion in the MCSI litigation." Don't know if MCSI refers to Municipal Collection Services (Inc?) or not. I don't have time to dig into this, but a quick, non-comprehensive search failed to turn up any judicial opinion and order involving MCSI on that date.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: December 29th, 2013 11:27 AM

FE so wrong, Fast Pee and Obstrudy refer to bias, but their bias is obvious, evidenced by their posts against people who've committed the sin of only having moved here within the past decade or two. For them, the world's more comprehensible when political power is limited to a small group of people you've known all your life. They see the political process as a once-every-four years thing where the masses are expected to cast their votes, then shut up. Tough for them that some folk don't agree.


Posted: December 29th, 2013 10:56 AM

@ Fast Eddie..I'm working on a literary piece called "Deconstructing the Path to Righteousness" ;) It explores the writings of three notable Oak Parker's who migrated to FP, inserted themselves into the political scene and use various forms of media as their platform..Were the biases, flaws & inconsistencies there at the beginning or did they evolve over time? Did they have a similar political agenda when residing in OP? Where did the bitterness come from? It's a fair & balanced approach..

FE so wrong, let me count thy ways  

Posted: December 29th, 2013 12:21 AM

@FE: gives vote counts from the last VB election, 2011. Turnout 35% of registered voters. On what planet is that "quite a bit of citizen input?" Unless you're psychic don't speak for the "majority of the citizens." But suppose that's a lot of input. Total votes to seated FPPAC commissioners 2275, non-FPPAC commis 2560, +12.5%. Or check FP votes in recent D209 election - overwhelmingly against the candidates backed by the mayor, Keep it up FE - spin baby spin!

Fast Eddie from FoPo  

Posted: December 28th, 2013 11:07 PM

@ Billy dink-a-link, the democracy we live in suggests quite a bit of citizen input at election cycles. The situation is there will always be citizens such as yourself who do not agree with the majority of citizens and your right is understood and respected. It just so happens that your view is just that.

Bill D  

Posted: December 28th, 2013 5:02 PM

To be clear, the River Forest village board discussed, at different times, license plate cameras, "canopy" surveillance cameras along Lake Street and Central Avenue from Harlem to the Jewel store, and red light cameras. Each topic was discussed in detail and at length after outreach to the citizenry and the opportunity for public input. Red light cameras were initially voted down before later being approved. That's how some village boards do it. Others boards feel they don't need voter input.

may I have more cameras please sir?  

Posted: December 28th, 2013 2:52 PM

BD -- "this [ALPR] is a policy decision for the village council to make." Completely agree. Automated govt controlled public cameras should at the very least have the consent of the watched through elected officials. I know I put up more of a stink about surveillance than BD, but it sounds like you agree that something is wrong if this was not discussed and voted by the VB. Would one of our elected Commissioners care to address this in comments here or in a ID-verified way through Jean?

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: December 28th, 2013 12:29 PM

I don't know, May I have. The use of such cameras is a policy decision for the village council to make. I covered the River Forest board when they discussed hiring MCS for their ticket collection program. It was an ongoing discussion, with various concerns and questions raised and answers sought from the police chief prior to a decision being made. But that's River Forest. Here in Forest Park, where our elected officials think they know all the answers, such public discussion rarely take place.

may I have more cameras please sir  

Posted: December 26th, 2013 2:59 PM

@BD -- I looked in the online agenda and can't find when the VC voted on or discussed getting an ALPR, but I could have missed it. Do you when they did? Also, it is not clear from the story what fraction of the 52 hits were from parking and which were hits on the NCIC data. Perhaps the FPPD can clarify that for us.

Bill D  

Posted: December 26th, 2013 2:03 PM

There's no record of any money from MCS or from owners Frank or Matthew Regan to Calderone, etc. They've given very little to political campaigns. To be fair, MCS was vetted by numerous municipalities, including River Forest, which has used MCS for the past 5 years or longer. That said, they still bear watching.

Forest Park Owner from Forest Park  

Posted: December 26th, 2013 1:00 PM

Did MCS give campaign donations to Tony, Mannix or Hosty?

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: December 26th, 2013 11:50 AM

I'm more concerned with allegations of abuses in the over due parking ticket system by one of Forest Park's contracted vendors, Municipal Collection Services MCS). The Tribune reports arbitrary increases in overdue ticket amounts by MCS, and the Illinois Attorney General is reportedly investigation the company.

Bill D  

Posted: December 26th, 2013 11:40 AM

First off, this is a policy decision that the village council made, not the police, though their opinion was certainly sought. And the ACLU is only gathering data for their study, not filing any lawsuit. Finally, those 52 "hits" weren't necessarily just for past due tickets. If this technology assists police in locating cars used in prior crimes, or people wanted for more serious offenses, I'm for allowing my license to be scanned. My civil liberties can be protected while police do their job.

may I have more camera's please  

Posted: December 26th, 2013 11:19 AM

@ Mattquist "But if I were an officer, I'd be pro on this as they're a lot of bad guys out there." Disagree. The fraction of "bad guys" is very small. Although cops disproportionately deal with bad guys, even they (I hope) would agree %-wise people are overwhelmingly not bad guys." They read 66,707 plates and got 52 hits for parking tickets. You've got to assume more serious crimes are much less frequent.

may I have more cameras please  

Posted: December 26th, 2013 11:07 AM

There is nothing about a law suit mentioned in the article or in the ACLU study of ALPR. It sounds like they are just gathering information and they also make some recommendations. Here is a link to their study

Mattquist from IslandDweller  

Posted: December 26th, 2013 10:19 AM

Seems ACLU makes some valid points of the potential mis-use. But if I were an officer, I'd be pro on this as they're a lot of bad guys out there. This issue comes up w/ much of citizen privacy and technology and there are valid points on both sides. I don't opt for one thought though of, "but if your not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about"

jerry from Forest park  

Posted: December 26th, 2013 10:03 AM

I don't recall anything about a lawsuit.

Forest Park Property Owner from Forest Park  

Posted: December 25th, 2013 7:33 PM

How much is the upcoming ACLU lawsuit going to cost the taxpayers? Is the village ready for this or are their heads in the sand?

may I have more cameras please sir?  

Posted: December 24th, 2013 3:22 PM

Bill: The courts ruled on the law when/assuming it was relatively expensive to run a plate. Soon cameras will cost pennies. Software/hardware to aggregate will also be cheap. Many believe tech is getting ahead of the law. Force multiplication is good only up to a point. Watched closely enough, even law abiding citizens with "nothing to hide" change their behavior. Not at that point locally but it's past time to discuss. ALPR is automated surveillance now active locally without public debate.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: December 24th, 2013 11:13 AM

I respect the ACLU, but they're barking up the wrong tree. River Forest has used this "force multiplier" technology for several years. Besides writing violation tickets, the technology has spotted numerous cars whose drivers were wanted for an assortment of crimes. We have no expectation of privacy on a public street while driving, and police don't need probable cause to simply run a plate, whether manually or electronically. Scanners help police enforce laws without violating anyone's rights.

may I have more cameras please sir?  

Posted: December 24th, 2013 11:08 AM

"You don't have ... privacy on a public street ? plates are issued by the state ... and displayed ... for everybody to see." Except it's not so simple given automated surveillance tools and DBs. If our elected officials and the PD really believe that quote, they can start by setting an example (in the interest of public safety and added revenue) and put GPS devices on their families' cars so we can follow them on Google maps, both real time and historic. After all, they've got nothing to hide.

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