We’ve all heard nasty things about the citizens of the apparently ironically-named “City of Brotherly Love.” They’ll boo Santa Claus. They throw batteries at opposing baseball players… and their own. And that’s just the sports fans.

More bad news has just arrived on the “We’re all not that terrible” PR front: according to Philly’s police department, each and every car owner whose vehicle’s license plate has had the misfortune of being scanned by the PD’s license plate readers is some sort of criminal. Charges TBD.

The City of Philadelphia does not want you to know in which neighborhoods the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) is focusing their use of powerful automatic license plate readers (ALPR), nor do they want disclosed the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of this technology, as they continue to fight a Declaration public records request filed in January with MuckRock News.

City officials argue in their response that every metro driver is under investigation, in an effort to exempt so-called criminal investigatory records from release under PA’s Right-to-Know Act:

Moreover, records “relating to or resulting in a criminal investigation” are exempt from disclosure under the Act, in particular “[i]nvestigative materials, notes, correspondence, videos and reports.” 65 P.S. § 67.708(b)(16)(ii). Such individual license plate readings and accompanying information are investigative materials that relate to individual criminal investigations, and, as your request indicates, these investigations may result in vehicle stops, arrests, or other police actions. Therefore, the individual license plate reading data is exempt from disclosure under the Act.

Investigative reporter Dustin Slaughter and The Philly Declaration have been battling the city for access to two weeks of raw ALPR output and, after multiple appeals, have been told every scan is exempt because every scan is part of a criminal investigation. This bizarre claim echoes the Los Angeles Police Department’s public records request-thwarting declaration: all scans are, and always will be, tied to investigations.

The Declaration is seeking this data to see if deployment patterns signal any sort of bias or prejudicial treatment. What it has managed to pry free from law enforcement are the following facts: At least 10 ALPRs are in steady use. Non-hit data is retained for a year. Data actually related to investigations is held indefinitely. (Which would mean — if the PD’s stated logic holds — that all scans are held indefinitely…)

The PD did hand over some summary data “pertaining to the time period requested,” but it must have grabbed the wrong figures or misread Dustin Slaughter’s request. He asked for data for a two-week period (Jan. 1-14, 2015). These are the numbers the PD handed over.

Number of Tags Read: 22,810,687
Terror Watch Reads: 77
Stolen Autos Recovered: 420
Stolen Plates Recovered: 23
Felony Arrests Made: 19
Misdemeanor Arrests Made: 9
Total Read Hours ALPR Fleet: 81,197

While it’s theoretically possible 22 million plates could be scanned in two weeks, there’s no way the Philly PD racked up 81,197 read hours during that time period, even if distributed across multiple vehicles. If this is a two-week period summary, the PD would need 241 units running 24 hours a day to hit the quoted “read hours.”

But even if these numbers are a lifetime summary of the the ALPR program, they’re still pretty impressive… at least in terms of scanning efficiency.

The department launched its ALPR program in or around 2011, according to Newsworks’ reporter Tom MacDonald.

This means the department is raking in around 7 million scans per year. On the other hand, if 22 million scans have only generated 19 felony arrests, you have to start wondering about the return-on-investment — something that doesn’t exactly back up Commissioner Charles Ramsey’s claim that the ALPRs are “highly effective crime fighting tools.” While it’s nice to see the department is recovering around 140 stolen vehicles every year, it’s a bit more disheartening to hear that it’s only led to 28 total arrests — especially when it considers every single one of these 22 million scans to be part of criminal investigations.


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