They’re out there, watching you. Or at least the rear end of your vehicle, with something called SkyCop.
The El Paso Police Department is using an arsenal of the high-tech license plate readers, mounted on the top of patrol cars, to identify vehicles that have been reported stolen.
Since 2009, the department has quietly expanded its use of the SkyCop system. And given the technology’s potential to invade people’s privacy, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas are watching, too.
An officer in a car armed with one of the department’s 32 license-plate readers can scan thousands of license plates every day. It’s done automatically as the officer drives around town going about his duties.
“It’s like the way the barcode reader made the grocery store more efficient. Instead of the clerk having to type in every price, now the scanner just does it. Well, it is the same thing with this,” says Sgt. Robert Gomez of EPPD’s auto theft task force. He has worked in law enforcement for 14 years.
While investigating stolen vehicles may sound like one of the less exciting tasks at the police department, Gomez says it has been anything but that during the four years he has been with the task force.
Most all crimes begin with a stolen vehicle, he says.
Vehicles stolen here in El Paso are often taken across the border, he says. There they may be used as payment or find their way into the hands of the drug cartels that use the vehicles to transport drugs and currency across the border, as well as to kidnap and kill.
“When you lose your vehicle, it is your primary mode of transportation – your job is tied to it. A lot of bad things follow from losing your car, and if we can prevent it from going to Mexico any way we can, it is a good thing,” Gomez says.
Vehicle theft stats, numbers that were nothing to boast about here in El Paso several years ago, are also one of the factors used in determining the safest cities designation.
El Paso holds the top slot right now, making it the safest city of its size, something that has been capitalized on by the city and local tourism organizations to promote El Paso. But vehicle theft is something that “can get out of control very fast,” Gomez says.
While the new technology has only played a part, Gomez says, the number of vehicles stolen in El Paso continues to drop.
There are only two crimes that are 100-percent reported – murder and auto theft, Gomez says. Murder because somebody cares about you, and auto theft because you are either insured and you want to make a claim, or you want your vehicle back.
So while the department can’t say how much marijuana, how many illegal guns and prostitutes are in El Paso, they can say there have been exactly 505 vehicle thefts so far this year, compared to 595 by this time last year. They have also recovered 943 vehicles so far this year, according to EPPD.
The unit that reads license plates is actually a collection of cameras. It looks like something that would be comfortable on a Mars Rover, and sticks out among the panoply of lights and antennae that already adorn the top of police cars.
The system takes photos of license plates as the police car passes vehicles on the road or parked in lots. Then it checks the numbers against EPPD’s database of vehicles reported stolen. If a match is found, the officer is alerted.
A police car can read 2,000 to 3,000 plates in a day, according to Gomez.
The El Paso Police isn’t the first or only department to use the technology in Texas – it’s also being used in places like Del Rio and Austin – but not many departments are using it as much as EPPD, according to Gomez.
“The department has been more receptive to the use technology that serves as a sort of ‘force multiplier.’ If you can give officers the tools to see beyond their police car, they’re a little more efficient and effective,” he says.
As for details, the department is holding its cards close to the vest, given that criminals tend to play unfairly. Give out too much information and Gomez says the criminals will change their habits to defeat the technology.
The system, called SkyCop, is produced by ESI Companies. Each unit costs EPPD $28,000.
But since the police department has recovered one stolen vehicle per week on average using the technology, and the average value of a vehicle stolen in El Paso is $16,000, it’s worth the price tag, Gomez says.
The value of vehicles stolen in El Paso is much higher than in the rest of the state, according to Gomez, driven by the demand across the border, where stolen vehicles are actually used as vehicles.
That means there’s a demand for newer, more expensive vehicles like F-150s, Yukons, Tahoes and Suburbans.
In other parts of the country, vehicles are often stolen to be sent to chop shops where their parts are harvested, according to Gomez. That makes older popular cars like Accords and Camrys the more popular targets.
What about privacy
Matt Simpson, policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, says they are primarily concerned with how the information collected by the machines is used, collected, stored and shared.
“This technology is widely used by law enforcement and it is something that the Legislature should study,” Simpson says. “The license plate scanners can collect thousands of plates in an hour, and if they are used regularly, you could potentially map a person’s movements. It is capable of getting pretty invasive quickly.”
A bill in the Texas Senate that would have placed limitations on how the readers are used essentially died last week.
Senate Bill 9, authored by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, passed the state Senate last month, but was left pending in the House Calendars Committee.
It would have created an automatic license plate reader pilot program and place limitations on the use of the technology. According to the bill, the readers couldn’t be used to capture the “image of a person,” the information had to be destroyed within a year and could only be used for “law enforcement purposes.”
In El Paso, the readers do not show who is in the vehicle and the photos are stored temporarily, according to Gomez. The time that the data are stored depends on how many plates the department reads – as the system runs out of space, it deletes the old files. But Gomez says it’s probably only about a month’s worth.
“The greatest misconception is that when the license plate reader reads your plates all your information comes up on the screen. That’s not the way it is. What happens is it reads the plate, compares it to known databases, and that’s it,” Gomez says.
Right now, the police department is only using the technology to check for stolen vehicles, but it can be used for other things as well. It can be used to check for warrants, suspended tags, registration, licenses and even monitor gang activity.