The Ubuntu Project Urbana-Champaign is disappointed to learn that the Champaign City Council is considering voting to purchase license plate readers. Considering the well-documented controversial reputation and questionable value of license plate readers, the Champaign people need more information on their effectiveness to justify the installation of such invasive technology. Even more troubling is that the city has not provided the citizens of Champaign a chance for detailed policy discussions on how the council will govern the use of these cameras. A vote without several public hearings would be rushed and lack transparency.
The problem lies with the use of license plate readers. First, the city has not presented any verifiable data to prove this technology reduces gun violence. In fact, CityLab estimates that between 2016 and 2017, 173 law enforcement agencies collectively scanned 2.5 billion license plates. However, those same agencies never reported the effect of this technology on reducing violent crime nor how they used the license plate scans. Also, the Bureau of Justice Statistics states that 93 percent of police departments in cities with populations of 1 million or more use their own license plate readers, which can scan an estimated 2,000 plates per minute. With such widespread use of this equipment, the fact that there are no reports on its effectiveness is concerning. Interestingly, violent crime has not “fallen” since the implementation of license plate readers, which points to a serious contradiction: no decrease in violence, but a drastic increase in surveillance and the potential for violations of civil liberties.
The research on this technology also notes high error rates. First, the technology can produce inaccurate “hot lists,” wrongly identifying motorists as suspects in the commission of crimes. If hot lists are not consistently checked, individuals could be pulled over by police for a false claim of their license being suspended or their car “fitting the description” of a vehicle wanted in an investigation. Research also shows that inaccurate license plate reads are very common. A control trial in Vallejo, California found that close to 37 percent of scans were misreads. This is an exceptionally high error rate for a “new age” technology. It can mean life, death, or freedom for individuals. The cameras also do not account for the fact that many family members and friends, especially in low-income areas, share cars, putting poorer Black and brown people at higher surveillance and risk of misidentification. The NYPD used license plate readers for its widespread surveillance program of Muslim people in New York and New Jersey. In the early 2010s in Oakland, California, license plate readers were placed in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods, despite the fact that automobile crimes and offenses predominantly occurred elsewhere in the city! In other words, there is not enough evidence that license plate readers are safe and less prone to errors to justify their purchase and use in Champaign. In fact, the evidence suggests this technology is disproportionately used to target Black and brown communities.
Second, the current trend in gun violence in Champaign highlights that shootings are occurring outside of the most densely Black neighborhoods, the North End of Champaign. Nonetheless, the police plan to surround the North End with these cameras, creating a virtual penal area. Why would the cameras not be deployed in the areas where the shootings have occurred? Of what use are the cameras if they are facing away from the desired location?
Third, individuals placed on a “hot list” can have their every move tracked, if desired. As people across the nation continue to protest police violence and surveillance, license plate cameras offer more invasive means to diminish our civil liberties. This is not only incredibly dangerous for any individuals engaging in social protest, but it will also expand the conflict between the Black community and the police. Additionally, why would a people reeling from mass racialized incarceration trust the police’s claim that the cameras will only be used for “violent crime?” The technology possesses the capacity to reference vehicles and their owners who are listed in municipal and federal databases for unpaid parking tickets or suspected relationships with social and racial justice organizations.
Fourth, the lack of transparency surrounding the administration of license plate readers in Champaign County is deeply troubling. We have not received any information on who would have access to the stored data and “hot lists.” Nor is it clear whether historical searches into the database would require a warrant documenting probable cause. We also do not know whether the license plate readers will be layered with other surveillance systems, such as the University of Illinois’s campus security camera network. The public has not been informed as to how long the license plate numbers would be stored, who would perform the audits of the cameras and whether those audits would be public information. And lastly, the city has not addressed if and how it would discipline or prosecute those who abuse the license plate readers for purposes other than searching for those who commit violent crime.
The fact is that the license plate reader company has zero data to show the effectiveness of these devices while dozens of studies show the dangers of this technology. Guided by the empirical data, the city council should delay the vote on adopting these cameras.
Therefore, we call on the Champaign City Council, the elected representatives of the citizens of Champaign, to delay the vote; and we demand transparent data on the use and effectiveness of such invasive and dangerous technology that would diminish the civil liberties of Black and brown and poor people across Champaign County.
In Zulu, Ubuntu means humanism and direct democracy. Ubuntu’s mission is to provide political education to raise the consciousness and equip fighters for social change with useful knowledge.
Editors’ note: since this statement was written, it has come to light that the city of Urbana is also considering adopting automated license plate readers.
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