Area police departments turn to cameras to find criminals

Philip Maloney

Credit: WFAA

Grapevine police credit their network of 10 surveillance cameras around Grapevine Mills Mall for identifying Philip Maloney, who was allegedly driving a stolen car and carrying the credit card information of 43 people.

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by JIM DOUGLAS

Bio | Email | Follow: @wfaajdouglas

WFAA

Posted on June 18, 2013 at 6:11 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jun 18 at 7:03 PM

Poll:
Do you mind if law enforcement agencies record and store your license info?

GRAPEVINE –– We're photographed more often than we know –– although, by now, Philip Maloney usually knows.  He's got several mugshots.

He got a brand new one Friday night when he drove to Grapevine Mills Mall in a stolen SUV.  A camera photographed his license plate on the way in, a computer sent a signal to police, and officers were waiting when he came out. 

"We've been able to come across a lot of stolen vehicles a lot quicker than we would," says Grapevine Sgt. Robert Eberling.   

He says Maloney was carrying credit card information on 43 people. Eberling says police also found drugs and six laptops they believe to be stolen.

"In the old days, we would have to be tipped off there was a stolen vehicle in the area," says Eberling.  

But in the new days, a network of 10 cameras around the mall captures every license plate and compares it to a database for stolen cars, warrants and other crimes.

That's 5 million photos taken since April of last year. They're stored in a database. 

"They've invaded my privacy," says Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Texas. "They've stored data on innocent people." 

She worries about who might be able to access that data if it's not promptly erased. Burke says the ACLU is receiving a growing number of complaints, but has not yet filed suit over the cameras in Texas.

"It's information that can reveal information about our lives," she says. "Who our friends are, who our doctors are, what political events we went to, what churches we go to."

Arlington Police Department spokeswoman Tiara Richard said the department has cameras mounted on four of its vehicles along with another portable one. They were purchased in 2010 as part of a federal grant. Information gleaned from the cameras is kept on record there for a year and deleted. 

"The equipment is used to confirm license plate matches on stolen vehicles, identify vehicles associated with wanted suspects and vehicles associated with people who have outstanding warrants," Richard wrote in an email.

In February, the Dallas City Council approved 14 license plate scanners to be placed in 10 high-crime areas by mid-March. Dallas Police Chief David Brown said then that the department has a 90 day retention policy for its database. 

Many residents have come to accept the cameras everywhere, but privacy experts say it's time to start thinking about what can happen when the pictures aren't erased. Grapevine and Arlington both say license plate cameras have helped recover stolen cars and make warrant arrests.  

Arlington has four of them mounted on vehicles. That city holds the data for one year before erasing it. Grapevine is still developing a policy. Eberling says the cameras have recorded more than 500 confirmed hits on plates tied to criminal activity.  

Terri Burke says the ACLU has made open records requests in all 50 states for information on license plate cameras and how the data is used and stored. She says few states have laws regulating them.  

"Our 21st century technology has gotten way ahead of where we are with our law," she says.

Email jdouglas@wfaa.com

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