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ACLU pushes for tighter controls as Normal considers license plate-reading cameras

Normal Police HQ
The ACLU says it has not seen the town of Normal's new policy on license plate-reading cameras, but it disapproves of the plan the police chief says it's modeled after.

The American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns when Bloomington Police bought license plate-reading cameras early this year, and the group is speaking out again now that the Town of Normal is also looking to buy the devices as a crime-fighting tool.

Normal Police Chief Steve Petrilli told the town council during a work session on Monday the ACLU and other groups vetted the license plate-reading policy that the town modeled its plans after.

Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the ACLU of Illinois, told WGLT on Wednesday that doesn't mean the ACLU endorsed the plan. Yohnka said the ACLU wants to see more strict controls over how the data from the cameras will be shared and how often police will use the technology.

“These products are being marketed as a response to violent crime, but the policies that are often adopted often speak to a much broader range of activities for which the cameras can be utilized,” Yohnka said.

Petrilli said the town's policy dictates the cameras can only be used for a "legitimate law enforcement purpose." He said the wording is intentionally broad because the cameras can serve the public in instances that don't involve violent crime.

“Somebody goes missing in our community and a police report has been filed and we have a little bit of information to follow up on like a location, possibly a color or make of a vehicle,” Petrilli said.

Petrilli stressed the cameras will not be used for traffic enforcement, but he pointed to other instances where he said the cameras can also uphold the rights of crime victims.

“It’s also about getting the victim their property back, so there’s a component on the other side of that as well,” Petrilli said. “You can leverage these cameras in all types of situations.”

The ACLU wants only supervising officers to have access to the camera data. Petrilli said all uniformed officers in Normal would be able to use the data, but they will be subject to regular department audits.

More than 100 police agencies in the state and several thousand nationwide use the license-plate readers despite opposition from civil libertarians and from racial justice groups who fear the cameras will be used to target people of color.

Yohnka said the ACLU faces an uphill battle in curtailing these cameras. “It’s a battle which I think is difficult because these is no question that agencies are being presented with rosy pictures about what these camera systems will do,” Yohnka said.

A representative of Flock Safety told the Normal Town Council on Monday the company’s cameras help solve about 500 criminal cases daily across the country.

The Town of Normal hasn't purchased the license plate readers yet. The town council is expected to vote next month.

Petrilli said the department hasn't met with any groups that have concerns about the policy, but said he's willing to do so. He added he plans to put the department's license plate-reading camera policy online before the town council votes on the camera purchase.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.