Automated license-plate readers may be coming to Winston-Salem. City likely to consider pilot program.

The Winston-Salem City Council is likely to consider a pilot program in December that would see the police department deploy automatic license plate readers citywide, a city official says.

Before the council reviews the program, city officials plan to do more community engagement and outreach, said Patrice Toney, an assistant city manager.

The police department held a webinar on Wednesday to educate residents about the program.

The automated license plate readers use cameras that capture license plate information and compare license plates against a database of wanted criminals or people of interest, the city said in a statement.

The system’s 24 cameras would be mounted on metal poles that would be 13 feet high, according to a city document.

Atlanta-based Flock Safety, a public safety operating system, would install the cameras.

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Flock Safety and Axon Enterprises Inc. of Scottsdale, Arizona, which provides city police officers with body cameras, would pay $71,000 for the police department to participate in the pilot program, a police official said.

The city’s automatic license plate readers would comply with state law and store license plates for 30 days, Police Captain Amy Gauldin said during Wednesday’s webinar.

State law allows license plates collected by automatic readers to be stored for 90 days, Gauldin said.

The system “allows the Winston-Salem Police Department to receive alerts when a vehicle is stolen or linked to a known suspect,” Gauldin said.

Examples of the alerts would include a suspect shooting, an alleged robbery, a kidnapping incident and a silver alert of a missing person, Gauldin said.

The cameras would not identify people in their vehicles or access their personal information through their analysis of license plates, Gauldin said.

The program’s data is confidential and not publicly available, Gauldin said.

We want to make sure the public is aware of that,” Gauldin said.

Automated license plate readers are used by the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office and police departments in Kernersville, Greensboro, Charlotte, Raleigh and Mooresville, as well as by police departments at Winston-Salem State University and Wake Forest University, the Winston-Salem Police Department said.

Jeff Welty, a professor of public law and government at the UNC School of Government, said automatic license plate readers are legal.

“ALPRs collect license plate information from vehicles traveling on public roads,” Welty said. “People who drive vehicles on public roads knowingly display their license plates to other drivers, pedestrians, and anyone else watching the streets.”

Courts have generally ruled that there is nothing wrong with police examining license plates on cars on the road and matching the license plates against law enforcement databases, Welty said.

“Some people think of ALPRs as part of a larger surveillance system that also includes things like pole-mounted video cameras, ShotSpotters, and so on,” Welty said.

“Perhaps at some point this network could become so intrusive that the network as a whole would raise legal concerns even if the various components were individually lawful,” Welty said.

“Of course, just because a particular technology or investigative technique is legal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea to use,” Welty said, “and the public may have understandable questions and concerns about new policing technology.”

The city’s decision to seek residents’ opinions on the program is the right approach, Welty said.

“I think it’s a good thing to involve the public when important new technologies are introduced to ensure law enforcement is meeting public expectations,” Welty said.

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