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Seattle Police may expand license plate reading technology to entire fleet

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(The Center Square) – The Seattle Police Department is looking to expand license plate reading technology to its entire fleet to combat increasing rates of stolen vehicles in the city.

Automated License Plate Reader, or ALPR, technology combines software and hardware used for capturing and monitoring images of license plates. The software deciphers a plate number and compares that number to a list of license plates associated with open, reported crimes and missing persons.

Council Bill 120778 would expand use of ALPR to 360 SPD vehicles, including six patrol boats and roughly 270 marked patrol cars.

Expanding the technology to a fleet-wide deployment comes with a price tag of $280,000 per year beginning this year.

The Seattle City Council first approved the Seattle Police Department’s use of ALPR technology in 11 police vehicles in 2021, but currently has nine police patrol vehicles equipped with ALPR.

According to data from the Seattle Police Department, motor vehicle theft in the city has increased 33% from 2022 (6,934) to 2023 (9,189). The department believes expanding the use of ALPR allows officers to better take on the growing vehicle theft problem.

“This would greatly expand our ability to identify and intervene on stolen vehicles,” Seattle Police Captain James Britt said at Tuesday’s Public Safety Committee meeting.

The department said that all data collected by the ALPR systems are stored and retained for 90 days. After 90 days pass, the data is automatically deleted unless it has been flagged as serving an investigative purpose.

Seattle City Councilmember Cathy Moore voiced concerns with Seattle Police holding on to collected data for 90 days, but Britt argued that some cities that use ALPR technology hold on to data for around two years.

Moore was also concerned with the Seattle Police Department contracting with the third-party vendor, Axon, to provide both ALPR enabled in-car video hardware and software.

“I have some very serious concerns about this technology,” Moore said. “If we are transferring to a third-party vendor, that raises the risk of being able to circumvent the Washington shield laws around people from out of state.”

The Public Safety Committee will have a second hearing and possible vote on Council Bill 120778 on May 28.