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License plate readers are solving crimes but critics fear misuse, privacy concerns

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Posted at 5:57 PM, Jul 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-25 13:20:01-04

INDIANAPOLIS — When police were looking for murder suspect Chaznee Mockabee last month, they found her with the help of a network of license plate-reading cameras that monitor city streets.

These high-speed cameras are placed strategically throughout the city, state highways and some suburbs. They snap pictures of thousands of plates per minute, tracking the movements of every passing driver.

There are about 300 of these cameras deployed throughout Indianapolis. Police in other Indiana communities are using them too, including Fishers, Muncie, Anderson and Plainfield.

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This license plate reader camera monitors streets on the east side of Indianapolis. There are about 300 license plate readers in the city.

They are a powerful tool for law enforcement in Indiana and across the U.S., but critics have raised alarms over the potential for privacy, misuse and racial inequity.

The cameras photograph thousands of plates per minute, compiling the vehicle characteristics and plate numbers and placing them into a database, instantly checking for any that might be stolen or wanted in connection with a crime.

They can track a get-away car as it races from a crime scene and send alerts to officers patrolling nearby or find stolen cars or vehicles associated with Amber Alerts.

"It does multiply the effectiveness of law enforcement because it gives them the ability that they wouldn't have otherwise to be able to see if vehicles are actually stolen or wanted," said Lt. Shane Foley, a spokesman for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.

Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department Public Information Officer Lt. Shane Foley on Aug. 20, 2021.

"If we have some information on a vehicle, we can look for that specific vehicle. If we have a partial license plate, we can look up a partial license plate, try and match that up with vehicles in the same make and color," Foley said. "And if we're looking for a very specific vehicle with a plate... we can look up that plate and see if it's passed by any of our license plate reader cameras."

The city has been using license plate readers for more than a decade. In September, Mayor Joe Hogsett announced that the city was investing $9 million in American Rescue Plan money into crime-fighting technology, including deploying about 200 new license plate readers.

On June 26, the readers helped police track Mockabee, who was wanted for murder in the Dec. 20, 2021, shooting death of D'Lon Edwards.

Investigators spent a year-and-a-half piecing together DNA, fingerprints and other clues they say link Mockabee to the killing. She is being held without bond in the Marion County Jail and has a hearing scheduled for late August, records show.

The cameras are seen by some as a way for government to monitor citizens without having to provide evidence or just cause.

Nationally, the American Civil Liberties Union has called for stricter laws and policies that will protect privacy and "prevent the government from tracking our movements on a massive scale."

Katie Blair, the ACLU of Indiana's director of advocacy and public policy, said she also fears that the cameras will be used in neighborhoods that already see a disproportionate amount of policing.

"These kinds of tools when deployed, especially in communities of color, create oppressive and stigmatizing environments where every community member is treated as if they are an enemy of the state," Blair said. "If cities and law enforcement want to use these tools, it's critical for them to get the support of the communities that they want to surveil."

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A Flock Safety license plate reader camera.

Indianapolis gets its cameras from Atlanta, Ga.-based Flock Safety. On its website, Flock Safety said"privacy is a bedrock of democracy... We do not believe we have to sacrifice safety in service of privacy and have engineered our technologies and systems to adhere to these principles."

"We are not trying to create a massive database," said Josh Thomas, Flock Safety's vice president of policy and communications. "We're also not looking to use this data for any other purpose to sell it. We don't sell it at all. We don't share it with third parties. We're not trying to market it to you."

Flock's cameras are operating in 44 states and 3,700 different cities, Thomas said.

IMPD does share the data with other law enforcement, but never the public. Foley said the system keeps track of anyone who views the data and why. If an officer doesn't have a good reason, Foley said they could be disciplined, suspended or fired.

"Our primary responsibility as a law enforcement agency is to protect people's rights," Foley said. "That includes their privacy rights."

Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at or on Twitter: @vicryc.