Philly PD Declares All Drivers To Be 'Under Investigation' While Denying Request For License Plate Reader Data

from the the-REAL-wretched-hive-of-scum-and-villainy dept

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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Comments on “Philly PD Declares All Drivers To Be 'Under Investigation' While Denying Request For License Plate Reader Data”

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Anonymous Howard, Cowering says:

You have to give it time

Yes, there’s only 28 arrests — SO FAR. Philly PD is a patient organization. Sooner or later, every one of those nearly 23 million records will be tied to something chargeable.

Here’s a thought: since these are all active investigations, and nobody’s turned themselves in to the Philly PD, aren’t the owners of those tags impeding an investigation? Or interfering with a police officer in the performance of his/her duty?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

One thing that is not illegal is positioning your sun visor to hide your face, so that if you trigger a speed or red light camera, they cannot see your face, and, therefore, cannot identify the driver. With these “revenue trap” red light and speed cameras, I do that in places where they are in use, esepcially speed cameras. If they cannot identify the driver, they cannot give a ticket.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

They also have to prove who is driving. Because some red light cameras are more “revenue trap” than for safety, I merely position the sun visor to hide my face whenever I am coming near any such cameras, so that if I cannot stop as the light changes, without getting rear-ended, the sun shade hides my face so they cannot identify me.

In short, you can position the sun visor to hide your face while still being able to see the road.

Anonymous Coward says:

‘City officials argue in their response that every metro driver is under investigation’

people dont seem to understand that this is the goal all police and law enforcement depts are striving to achieve. you may laugh, but everything that they want is being slowly brought into being. just like the entertainment industries, they started by trying to sue the lowliest of companies, them moved to greater and still greater companies with every law suit win. now, they are not only trying to introduce a committee that can just accuse someone of doing something the industries dont like, with no proof and have that person denied his right to use the internet. and dont forget the latest filing of how, according to them, VPNs break copyright law, even though they have been in existence for years, and are used on a daily basis by millions of people. another ‘clutch at a straw’ move by Gollywood et al!

Anonymous Coward says:


In my opinion forget about the felony arrests and think about this theoretical statement which would probably get them funding for the next 10 years:

“With our licence plate reader program we were able to locate 77 potential terrorists. We will continue to expand our efforts to keep our citizens safe.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: return-on-investment

actually you have to take a few dozen of those plates out of the equation, because police (and authority figure) plates have been set to be automatically removed from the list. All purely by accident of course. Some poor programmer tripped, hit his head on the keyboard and accidentally typed in several hundred lines of code designed to track, detect and remove specific plates. Then whilst getting up he accidentally typed in a list of ‘excluded’ plates…..

Anonymous Coward says:

What is the front number plate is smashed in. About a year ago, when taking my car in for service, I came in just a little to fast into one parking space with a negative slope and smashed in the license plate, though the rest of the car was OK.

The way the front plate is bashed, there is no possible way a camera could get the license number. the front license plate got smashed good, even though the rest of the car is OK, so if I am ever in Philly, they will not get anything unless they scan the back plate as well.

Since speed cameras and red light cameras photograph the front plate, they would would not be able to get a license number to send a ticket, either.

Anonymous Coward says:

The Philadelphia Parking Authority routinely uses license plate scanners on their vehicles. Oftentimes booting crews will drive around neighborhoods scanning the plates of cars parked on the street looking for vehicles that have outstanding parking tickets. They will boot cars on the spot when the license plate readers find a match.

Some Philadelphia Police cars have license plate scanners on their lightbars as well. Similar to the PPA vehicles they have a left and right front facing scanner and a rear facing scanner on the right side.

Philadelphia is also home to a recently completed fusion center. It’s very likely that they’re utilizing scans from both the police and parking authority vehicles.

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