Critics, supporters speak out as Sartell works to install license plate recognition cameras

Pilot program brings license plate readers to Sartell

Pilot program brings license plate readers to Sartell

In Sartell, a new seeing-eye law enforcement tool is coming soon to roadways and intersections there.   

The city council in September approved a plan to install eight license plate recognition cameras, or LPRs.

“We want to be vigilant to the fact that bad things happen in good places sometimes,” declares Sartell Police Chief Brandon Silgjord.

The devices scan and record photos of the back of vehicles passing by.

The chief says seven of the cameras will likely be mounted on light poles, and that one of them will be portable.

Residents and visitors say they’re well aware the LPRs are coming.

“I guess I have nothing to hide, so I don’t feel negative towards it at all,” says Jill Schinkel, visiting from Sauk Rapids. “I mean, if it’s easier to catch people who’ve done bad things, I guess I’m all for it.”

“I don’t care for that, invasion of privacy kind of thing, I’m not a big fan of it,” adds Kevin Johnson, from St. Cloud. “Just like everything else, big brother is watching.”

The idea is part of a two-year pilot program, under an agreement with Flock Safety, an Atlanta vendor.

The cameras are expected to cost about $29,000 the first year, and $24,000 the next.

Flock Safety will own the cameras, but the city will pay for their operation.

Silgjord says there is a specific reason for trying out the system now.

“So, we had a rash of crimes in our city that involved vehicle break-ins,” he says.

The chief says last summer, there were dozens of smash and grab robberies of vehicles parked outside ball games and other venues.  

The department issued alerts on social media.

Silgjord says witnesses often had only vague information- but with the new cameras, he says, that could change.

“We were getting suspect vehicle descriptions without having a plate number. We can only go so far with an investigation when it comes to that,” he notes. “With these cameras in place… we can type in ‘green jeep’. We can go as far- maybe somebody said there was a dent in the corner panel and try to narrow it down.”

Silgjord says one motto of his department is ‘reducing fear.’

He believes the LPR technology could also play a role in keeping kids safe or helping with crimes involving children.

“If you think of an abduction, especially in the heat of the moment, somebody might remember seeing a suspicious vehicle in the area, but maybe didn’t grab a plate,” he says.

Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension records show more than forty police agencies in Minnesota are currently using LPRs.

A BCA spokesperson says four times a day, the agency provides FBI Hot files to those departments, including national data on stolen vehicles, wanted persons, missing persons, and sex offenders.

The BCA says it also shares data on Minnesota warrants, and information on suspended, revoked, and cancelled licenses.

But the ACLU is voicing concerns about the LPR devices and their use.

“We see this as an expansion of government surveillance and we have privacy concerns about that,” says Munira Mohamed, a policy associate with ACLU’s Minnesota Chapter.

The civil rights advocacy group says its biggest worries are about data collection— and how long that information is used and retained.  

“So not only are you looking up for a stolen car using that license plate recognition technology, but you’re also collecting the data of a ton of innocent people’s license plates on their cars and their location,” Mohamed says.

Silgjord says there are safeguards in place.

He explains police will compare plate numbers against the hot list of stolen vehicles or those connected with a wanted person- but isn’t searching for records of every vehicle that drives by the camera.  

The chief says his department is going beyond a state statute requiring LPR data files to be destroyed in sixty days- he says instead, Sartell Police will delete them in thirty days, unless they’re being used as part of a criminal investigation.  

“We’re not trying to retain this data for a long period of time,” Silgjord explains. “We’re trying to retain it and respond to crimes in their immediacy.”

The chief says per state law, there will be an internal third-party audit of the system every two years.

He adds that every officer with access to the system must log in— he says the system shows when they do that- and is required to have what he calls a ‘criminal justice reason’ to access or use the data.

Police hope to have the system up and running by the end of the year.

Silgjord says the city will keep the system in service for two years, and then will assess whether to continue using it.  

“So, trying to find that perfect little spot where we’re protecting privacy, but also giving ourselves the best leg up to solve these crimes,” he says.