Nov 20


License plate readers target minority neighborhoods

Buffalo police have quietly installed license plate readers around the city, mostly on the East Side and Lower West Side. The lack of transparency is compounded by an absence of formal policies governing how data is used and shared.

Buffalo police have quietly installed license plate readers at 41 intersections in the city, two-thirds of them located in neighborhoods populated predominantly with people of color. 

Buffalo police, in response to a Freedom of Information Law request for the department’s policies on license plate readers, wrote that they’re used for “law enforcement investigative purposes only.” While it’s unclear how the department now is using readers, police in the past used mobile readers to issue traffic tickets, at considerable profit to the city. 

Unlike many other cities, neither the police nor Mayor Byron Brown, their commander in chief, have made the public aware of the stationary readers, which are typically attached to traffic-light crossarms. Common Council members say they, too, have been left largely in the dark.

Other cities that are using license plate readers have been more transparent. In Syracuse, for example, officials surveyed the public and considered a report from a municipal advisory committee before deciding on their use.

Also unlike many other cities, Buffalo police have no formal policies governing the use and retention of data collected by the readers. In practice, police said they limit how long they retain the data collected by the readers and the personnel who have access to it.

Criminologists say readers show promise, but that more research is needed to determine how well they solve or deter crime. Others have concerns about their accuracy and the threat they may pose to privacy rights.

Then there’s the placement of most readers in Buffalo on the East Side and Lower West Side.

“It’s subjecting the residents and the people who have business in that neighborhood to a level of police scrutiny that other people don’t have to bear,” said Claudia Wilner, a lawyer who represents Black Love Resists in the Rust, which is suing the city in federal court for what it maintains is discriminatory policing practices.

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Why haven’t the police been more forthcoming with the public or Common Council?

Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia refused multiple interview requests from Investigative Post. When quizzed at a press conference about the department’s failure to inform the Common Council, he said: I haven’t been asked for it.”

Some members have had at least an inkling, however.

Three years ago, Council President Darius Pridgen sponsored a resolution calling on police to give the City Clerk a report on license plate readers and deliver a presentation to Council members. But Pridgen didn’t follow through. Police haven’t delivered a report or a presentation. 

Niagara Common Council Member David Rivera, chairman of the Council’s Police Oversight Committee, said that license plate readers haven’t come to the Council’s attention. Rivera, a retired police detective, said the department was using mobile license plate readers installed on patrol vehicles when he left the force in 2007. He said that he doesn’t have details on how the department is using stationary readers. 

“The information that comes from the technology and how long they hold onto it and what they do with it, I don’t know,” Rivera said. “It’s a fair question.” 

A moneymaker for the city

The city began installing stationary plate readers a decade ago, when mobile readers on marked police vehicles at roadblocks were revenue generators in minority neighborhoods. Since 2022, it has spent $336,000 in federal pandemic aid to purchase and install additional readers at 14 intersections.

The department now operates 104 readers at 41 intersections, according to documents obtained by Investigative Post.

Buffalo police once lauded readers as revenue generators. 

“I feel the plate readers are essential to this unit,” Lt. David E. Wilcox wrote in a 2014 email to Capt. Patrick A. Roberts, requesting more mobile readers at East Side roadblocks for the since-disbanded Strike Force, which was eliminated after being accused of writing tickets to minorities in disproportionate numbers.

“Any consideration for additional readers would be greatly appreciated. As previously stated, our unit impounds more cars and writes more summons (by a wide margin) than any district or unit in the city. Our single plate reader has been paid for many times over.” 

At the time, police were planning a network of stationary plate readers and needed Common Council approval to accept state grants to help pay for them. Stationary readers, police wrote in documents submitted to the Council, would help solve shootings and car thefts while also flagging unregistered and uninsured vehicles in high-risk areas. They wouldn’t be used as “red-light cameras,” police wrote. 

A decade later, police in response to a Freedom of Information Law request from Investigative Post wrote that they have no policies governing stationary license plate readers. Police wrote that data is retained for one year and can only be used for law enforcement purposes. 

Personnel with access to data include two lieutenants and a captain, employees assigned to the department’s camera room and employees assigned to the Erie Crime Analysis Center, which includes law enforcement personnel outside the city’s police department, police wrote.  

Roadblocks came down in 2018, after Black Love Resists in the Rust sued the city on grounds that the program disproportionately targeted minorities. Stationary readers that remain are problematic, according to Wilner, the lawyer who represents Black Love Resists in the Rust. 

“The Common Council should act to protect the people of Buffalo from unwarranted use of license plate readers,” she said.

Three years ago, Pridgen vowed an inquiry after WKBW reported that readers had recorded nearly 43 million plate numbers in the space of a year. The Council president said he was concerned about readers concentrated in minority neighborhoods. 

“Quite interestingly, you have more of the answers than I do because I didn't know anything about them,” Pridgen told a WKBW reporter. 

Pridgen subsequently introduced a resolution calling on police to file a report on readers with the city clark and make a presentation to Council members. The 2020 resolution was referred to the Finance Committee, which tabled it until June, when, at Pridgen’s request, the resolution was removed from the agenda, with no action taken. 

Differing public reaction 

Residents and passersby near license plate readers told Investigative Post they hadn’t known about the technology until told by a reporter. Some said they supported efforts to combat crime, but that the public should have been told when readers were installed. Several questioned why readers haven’t been installed in a more equitable manner across the city.  

“Are they looking to catch us or are they looking to help us?” asked Jamal Davis, who hadn’t known about license plate readers at the intersection of Bailey Avenue and Cloverdale avenues until a reporter told him. 

“I think it brings about a sense of anxiety in the community,” Davis said. “So, if it’s cameras around the schools, if it’s cameras on the corners, if it’s cameras everywhere on one side of town, what are you saying to the community?” 

Al Parker, site manager for the Edward Saunders Community Center on Bailey, said he hadn’t known about nearby license plate readers, but he’s not worried. 

“It doesn’t bother me at all. They can track your phone,” Parker said. 

“I don’t think it’s a problem if the plate gets read and it comes up with a stolen car. That’s helpful. … I think they should have made you aware. But if people know about it, they may avoid them.” 

Policies and practices elsewhere

Sixteen states ranging from Arkansas to Montana restrict police use of license plate readers. In New Hampshire, for example, data collected by readers must be destroyed within three minutes if a plate number doesn’t match a person or vehicle of interest to police. 

Some local governments have gone further than states. 

In Tennessee, the Nashville Metropolitan Council in August voted 24-14 to allow readers after a six-month pilot program that included posting information about license plate readers on the city’s website and installing roadside signs notifying motorists of nearby readers. 

After discovering the sheriff had allowed a vendor to install nearly 100 readers, the Lake County Board of Commissioners in Florida two years ago ordered them removed and banned readers on county rights of way absent board approval. In the summer of 2022, commissioners OK’d readers after the sheriff and a vendor made their case at public meetings. 

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In New York, which has no state law governing police use of license plate readers, Syracuse police requested readers in February and got Common Council clearance for 26 units in September. 

Approval came after the city surveyed residents and Mayor Ben Walsh accepted recommendations from an advisory committee that said police should issue reports on how readers are used and how many times they’ve helped solve crimes. Under the recommendations, data collected by Syracuse police must be destroyed within 30 days and cannot be used to enforce immigration laws or shared outside law enforcement agencies. 

Niagara County Sheriff Michael Filicetti issued a press release last summer when the department started installing 67 plate readers funded by nearly $200,000 in federal money. It’s the sort of approach advocated by critics and at least one criminologist, who say the public should know how readers are used. 

Hearings and civilian approval should be required before police can acquire readers that can be used to track peaceful protestors and women seeking abortions, according to Daniel Schwarz, privacy and technology strategist with the New York Civil Liberties Union. 

 “They’ve become cheaper, popping up all over the place,” said Schwarz, who sat on the Syracuse advisory committee and voted against allowing readers. “We’re concerned with all of them.” 

Scott Phillips, a Buffalo State University criminologist, said he doesn’t worry about readers, but that police shouldn’t deploy them in secret. 

“If government monitors them, if there’s transparency in how they’re used, I don’t, personally, think there’s a problem with these types of things,” said Phillips, who studied the effectiveness of plate readers used by Buffalo police at roadblocks and concluded more research is needed. 

 Law enforcement officials say Orwellian concerns are overblown. 

“This is solely to keep the community safe,” Filicetti said. “We have no reason whatsoever to look at your comings and goings.” 

Efficacy, accuracy 

Police can use readers to find and track vehicles even if officers don’t have a plate number.

“If it’s a red vehicle, you can put ‘red vehicle’ into it,” Filicetti said. “It will search for anything with stickers on the back of a car. You can be pretty vague with it.” 

Niagara County has contracted with Flock Safety, an Atlanta company, to design and install its reader network. Data can be shared with other law enforcement agencies, Filicetti said, and will be destroyed after 30 days. 

“Any vehicle that goes through it that is stolen, wanted, related to some kind of criminal activity, we’ll get some kind of alert,” Filicetti said

Police across the country say readers catch criminals, particularly car thieves. Gramaglia said during his August press conference that he didn’t know how many car thefts in Buffalo have been solved by license plate readers. 

“I don’t have that number offhand, but I know that it is a significant help to us because we are getting that real-time data,” Gramaglia told reporters.

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Criminologists caution that plate readers aren’t proven crime fighters. 

In North Carolina, where Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have 100 readers at 45 locations, researchers reported “tentative but not conclusive evidence” that license plate readers may have had a modest effect on closing auto theft and robbery cases, the two crimes police most often used readers to help solve. 

It’s possible, but not certain, that more readers would improve results, researchers wrote in their 2019 paper. More research was needed, they concluded, to determine the best ways to use license plate readers. 

Phillips, who researched how Buffalo police used readers at roadblocks seven years ago, agreed that more study is needed. The goal, he said, was deterring crime. 

“They were waiting for the reader in the car, off to the side, to go ‘ding, ding, ding — there’s something about that license plate, you need to have a conversation with the driver,’” Phillips recalled. “That person would get pulled over. Maybe they’d get a ticket, maybe they’d get arrested for an outstanding warrant.” 

Results were encouraging

“What we found was, there was some deterrent effect on more serious crimes, the murders, the robberies — they did seem to be reduced in those neighborhoods,” Phillips said. “It had some effect, but we’re not sure of the long-term effect, because [the use of plate readers] wasn’t sustained. Is there a positive contribution? Yes. Is it 100 percent? Probably not.” 

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Accuracy has been a concern. 

Readers evaluated by police in California had error rates as high as 37 percent, according to a 2018 article published in Police Chief magazine. An official with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, which collects data from 28 police agencies, has pegged the accuracy rate at 90 percent

Even when readers get a plate right, the result can be wrong. 

Brian Hofer settled a lawsuit against California police for $49,500 after officers pulled him over at gunpoint when a reader gave an alert on his rented Kia, which had been reported stolen. No one had updated the list of stolen vehicles. 

“They picked the wrong guy,” Hofer, who sits on the city of Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission, told a reporter. 

 In Niagara County, criminals are the only ones who should be worried, the sheriff said. 

 “I’ve had one call from one resident here with a concern about these cameras,” Filicetti said. “We agreed to disagree. I have no intention of tracking people.” 

Investigative Post

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