AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin City Council will once again discuss reinstating the Austin Police Department’s license plate reader program during next week’s council meeting. The controversial program was discontinued when the council cut the police budget in 2020.
Council members have kicked the proposal down the line several times, but Councilmember Mackenzie Kelly — who originally introduced the proposal — is bringing it back once again. It now has several sponsors, according to the agenda, councilmembers Leslie Pool, Ann Kitchen, Kathie Tovo and Paige Ellis.
EFF Austin — an Austin-based digital civil liberties advocacy organization — said they have major concerns with the resolution, as proposed, when it comes to people’s rights and privacy.
“We believe it blatantly violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizure,” Kevin Welch, president of the EFF Austin board, said. He has been heavily involved in talking to city council members about the legality of the program.
Welch pointed to instances across the country where the technology has been used to profile specific people: for example, Welch said the NYPD was caught scanning vehicles near mosques.
He said if the city is going to reinstate the program, EFF Austin wants the city to do the following: Shorten the time data is held in the database, localize the database, ensure data is not shared, only allow for cameras on stationery items (not on police cars), have a robust audit process and allow members of the public to see if they are in the database.
“There was that very prominent AMBER Alert of a kidnapped one-year-old just the other day,” Welch said. “We all want to solve these problems, we just want to make sure that we’re using the right tools to solve the problems and that we don’t create as many harms as we’re trying to fix.”
On the other side of the discussion, Kelly cited a 2017 incident where she said Austin police were able to use license plate readers to “successfully locate a kidnapped two-year-old child from San Antonio” in a previous council meeting.
“For me, this is a matter of life safety for people in the community. If we can save one child who is abducted or if we could help one victim of a heinous crime get justice, then that’s worth it to me,” Kelly said, also briefly noting she was confident the council could ensure the data collected was used appropriately.
The Austin Police Department presented several instances to council members during a town hall where the program helped solve a crime, including an incident in 2019 where two people kidnapped a child from a bus stop and were located using the technology.
The Austin Police Department has previously told KXAN that the cameras helped detectives crack dozens of violent crime cases between 2016 and 2020. The PD also said an audit on its database would take place every three months to ensure it was being used correctly and that officers would be subject to criminal codes for misusing the technology.
If approved, the police department would be able to reinstate the cameras it has from previous use and would be able to continue the program immediately. The program would cost taxpayers a little under $115,000.
“It’s not just about, ‘oh, horrible things may happen. We have to do anything to stop them,'” Welch said. “We have to think about the horrible things our solution may cause.”