SkyCop: an effective tool or invasion of privacy?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - 6:16pm

El Paso borders one of the most dangerous cities in the world, Juarez, but is still ranked as the safest U.S. city of its size.

The El Paso police department says that's due in part to our decreasing crime rates, including crimes like murder and auto theft.
Since 2009, the El Paso Police Department has been using a tool called SkyCop, a device mounted on police cars that can scan thousands of license plates in minutes to locate stolen cars, help with child abductions and silver alerts.

Six months ago Sylvia Best's car was stolen from a mall parking lot.

"Looking for the car you know cause I remembered where I had parked and we couldn't find it," said Best.

She called police, obviously upset her car was missing and even more upset about what was inside: her kids belongings.

"The baseball stuff was like that's what like hurt. The probability of you getting your vehicle back is probably slim to none because its probably already in Mexico." said Best.

Mike Baranyay with the El Paso Police department says that's not always the case.

"The misconception of stolen vehicles in El Paso is that they all go to Mexico," said Baranyay.

Since 2009, the police force has been making a difference with the help of a new technology, called SkyCop, a license plate reader or LPR.

The El Paso police department is using the tool to find stolen vehicles, child abductions or Silver alerts. The machine can scan between 2 and 3,000 plates a day. Since this same time last year, auto theft has decreased by 41 %,

"Scanning, if you will, everywhere that the eye of the device is pointed," said Baranyay.

But not everyone is excited about the technology. Some say its an invasion of privacy because it is constantly accumulating information on any plate it scans. The ACLU recently commented:

"The system ceases to be simply a mechanism enabling efficient police work and becomes a warrantless tracking tool, enabling retroactive surveillance of millions of people. Location information can reveal deeply sensitive and intimate details of our lives."

Baranyay said the only way an officer will investigate further on any recorded information attached to a plate, is if there is a match in the database. The officer would need to find out why the plate is wanted.

"Could it be abused? Absolutely. Our agency doesn't allow it to be. All it gives is the license plate and then again the officer has to then confirm what that license plate is wanted for," said Baranyay.

A technology that does not require extra personnel to help find wanted plates associated with criminal investigation, is a positive, according to Baranya. The machine works while the officer goes about his normal duties, only alerting the officer if there is a match.

"If we can find some technology out there that can supplement our efforts and in our case law enforcement efforts, whether it be on a border or on a city street, we're gonna take advantage of that technology," said Baranyay.

Catching just one car thief can make a huge difference.

"Typically speaking, auto thieves don't steal one vehicle and then retire from the business if you will. This is a business that they're involved in and if we can identify them and locate them and apprehend them as well as recover the stolen vehicles then that also has a positive affect on lowering our crime rate," said Baranyay.

While LPR's are used mainly to find stolen vehicles, they have other uses beneficial to our community.

"If your child goes missing, if your elderly parent with Alzheimers goes missing and we have a license plate, we can enter that license plate into the LPR database and those vehicles are out there not only scanning the stolen vehicles but also hopefully recovering your lost loved one," said Baranyay.

A small but effective tool, Baranyay says, in helping lower crime rates in the borderland. That is something that Sylvia Best can appreciate.

"Why wouldn't you want a technology like that to exist and be used to get that person," said Best.

The El Paso PD has recovered 128 stolen vehicles since 209, including one that helped close down an entire auto theft ring, roughly adding up to $1.5 million dollars. Each SkyCop costs $28,000.

The ACLU and several states have made efforts to place limitations on the use of the technology. A bill proposed in the Texas Senate that would have placed limitations on how the readers are used, passed the senate last month but was left pending in the house calendars committee.

The El Paso Police Department says after the database runs out of room, it then deletes information.

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