By: Carol Spindel, ACLU of Champaign County Chapter

In 2021, the City of Urbana experienced a number of high profile incidents of violent crime, incidents that led many in our community to call for new measures aimed at combatting crime. Not long after those calls were issued, Urbana officials began to consider deploying automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) marketed by Flock Safety.

Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs) are a powerful surveillance tool increasingly being deployed across Illinois’s communities and expressways. These camera systems are aggressively marketed as a means of reducing violent crime, but are collecting data on every car that drives past. 

But there are deep civil liberties concerns with the use of ALPR technology, in part because of the risk this powerful surveillance technology poses to civil liberties and privacy, and also, importantly, because it has often been used to close off and monitor Black and Brown communities, aggravating the disparity in tickets, arrests, and fines and fees.

Proposals similar to the one that came up before the Urbana City Council are popping up in local city councils across the state. The ACLU of Illinois has already tracked instances in Decatur, Bloomington, Peoria and Springfield.

Members of our community concerned with civil liberties, including the Champaign County Chapter of the ACLU-IL, asked the city to make the decision-making process transparent, and in response, the city held two town hall meetings. This enabled community members to express their concerns and pose questions to representatives of the police department.

For our part, the ACLU used our voice to call for all communities to work together – and with police – to reduce violence. Mostly, we wanted more investment in our communities, not committing resources to ALPRs as a panacea that might close off the possibility for other community-based options. We also stated that ALPR technology should not be adopted without a detailed oversight policy to protect the privacy of law-abiding residents of Urbana and to hold the police department accountable.

At the open meetings, we urged the city to approve the program only as a one-year trial program that would include the following requirements:

  1. The draft police department policy regulating internal use of automatic license plate readers must be clear and strong about who has access to the data and how long the data is kept.
  2. The department supervising the deployment of cameras should disclose the location of the ALPR technology to the public and provide timely updates if and when the locations change so that it can be assured they won't build a tech moat around Black and brown neighborhoods.
  3. Mechanisms to measure the efficacy of the license plate readers in a yearly audit should be part of their adoption and implementation, including exploring:
    • The operating cost of the system.
    • Its efficacy - to what extent and how has it contributed to diminishing violent crime?
    • The outcome of the disciplinary policy - in general terms, has the police department disciplined anyone for infractions of their ALPR policy, and if so, what for?
    • For what other purposes has the police department used license plate data?
  4. And, the department overseeing the process should promise not to share data with any other law enforcement agency which does not abide by the local privacy policy.

After weeks of discussion, Urbana ultimately decided not to move forward with ALPRs in our community. We know that has not been the outcome in other central Illinois communities. But our experience shows that rallying the community around specific demands and raising awareness about the power of ALPR systems is important work for the ACLU.

I encourage you to be alert to the adoption of surveillance-based policing in your communities and speak out against them to protect all of our privacy.