Eden Prairie’s police department has quietly expanded its use of technology to catch car thieves by using portable automated license plate recognition (ALPR) devices in various locations across the city.
The Eden Prairie Police Department (EPPD) has used non-portable license plate readers (LPRs) on four squad cars since 2017, according to EPPD Lt. Jess Irmiter. But the department purchased 13 ALPRs in late 2021 thanks to a $20,000 grant from the State of Minnesota’s Auto Theft Prevention Program.
The ALPRs have been deployed in “high-traffic commercial locations” throughout the city, Irmiter said.
Irmiter declined to provide EPLN with a list of the locations currently being used, citing a Minnesota law that allows law enforcement agencies to keep those locations confidential under certain circumstances.
That law, Minnesota statute 13.824 subdivision 8, states that such a list must be accessible to the public and be available on the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) website unless “… the law enforcement agency determines that the location of a specific reader … is security information.”
Eden Prairie’s city attorney has determined that all portable ALPR units meet the “security information” standard, Irmiter said. If exact locations were known, they would be subject to vandalism, and car thieves knowing their locations could jeopardize active investigations, he said.
Because of that decision, logs kept by the department denoting the locations of the devices are not available for public inspection, he said.
Irmiter confirmed that 12 of the 13 portable ALPR units were active on April 10.
How ALPRs work
ALPR systems combine high-speed cameras and sophisticated software to capture and convert license plate images into data that can be compared with information in other databases.
Cameras used in ALPRs may be mobile or stationary and are small enough to be mounted on police cars, road signs and traffic lights, or placed at the sides of roads or on bridges.
License plate reader systems can collect a driver’s geographic location, along with the date and time a vehicle was in a particular place, according to their manufacturers.
Eden Prairie uses LPR units on four of its squad cars, which are manufactured by PIPS, a division of Neology, which provides vehicle detection and recognition analytics to police departments; and the 13 recently added Motorola portable ALPR units, according to Irmiter.
According to Motorola’s website, its ALPRs can automatically photograph a vehicle in moving traffic and zero in on its license plate. The photographed license plate can then be read in real-time.
During a single shift, an officer using an LPR system can check 8,000 or more license plates or more, compared to manually checking 50 to 100 plates, the website claims.
While ALPRs scan vehicles within their range, they only notify law enforcement of license plates that are flagged by the BCA as part of a “hot list” that includes information drawn from law enforcement databases nationwide, Irmiter said.
When turned on, ALPRs are constantly collecting data, Irmiter said.
The EPPD does not own the the devices, Irmiter said. An annual lease for an ALPR costs between $1,500 and $2,500, he said. Costs are covered by the state grant and a city ALPR budget.
“The EPPD does not plan to install additional ALPR units at this time,” Irmiter said. However, the department does plan to replace the squad-mounted units soon because they have reached their life-expectancy, he said.
In 2021, there were 66 motor vehicle thefts in Eden Prairie, Irmiter said, up from 63 in 2020 and 23 in 2019.
APLRs have been responsible for recovering stolen cars and resulting in arrests and charges, based on recent police complaint documents.
Irmiter confirmed that recent criminal charges filed against individuals in car theft and recovery cases in Eden Prairie have resulted directly from “hits” provided by portable ALPRs.
In a March 22 incident, a 21-year-old Shakopee man was charged with fleeing a police officer in a motor vehicle after Eden Prairie police received an ALPR hit on a stolen vehicle in the area of Regional Center Road and Prairie Center Drive.
Officers pursued the vehicle but terminated the chase due to poor road conditions. The car was later stopped by Minnetonka police and the occupants were arrested.
In another case, Eden Prairie police were dispatched to Cub Foods, 8015 Den Road, on March 23 in response to an ALPR hit on a vehicle stolen during a recent car hijacking in Minneapolis. A suspect was arrested and charged with receiving stolen property and possession of unprescribed Oxycodone.
Six other stolen vehicles have been recovered, and an additional five arrests have been made since the portable ALPRs were activated in December 2021, Irmiter said.
Privacy advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have expressed concerns that the large amount of ALPR data being collected is growing more quickly than are policies and procedures governing their use.
They fear that plates mistakenly identified as belonging to someone suspected of breaking the law could result in a tragedy.
Irmiter said that ALPRs in Eden Prairie have not been responsible for any of those kinds of errors.
“The LPR system is designed to serve only as a tool for officers,” he said. “Officers must first verify the information is correct prior to taking any enforcement action.”
Under Minnesota law, data collected by an ALPR is limited to license plate numbers; date, time and location data on vehicles; and pictures of license plates, vehicles, and areas surrounding the vehicles.
According to the statute, all data collected on individuals by ALPRs is private except in instances involved in arrests or active criminal investigations.
ALPRs cannot be used to monitor or track individuals without a warrant, Irmiter said.
Data collected by an ALPR unrelated to an active criminal investigation must be destroyed after 60 days, unless they are being used in an active criminal investigation, Irmiter said.
State law also requires each ALPR unit to be audited every two years.
The BCA website lists only 8080 Mitchell Road – the EPPD’s address – as the location of an ALPR. Even though other ALPRs are considered portable, some are attached to permanent fixtures such as light posts or traffic signal structures.
Irmiter said that those ALPRs are considered portable because they can be quickly moved to different locations depending on crime trends, Irmiter said.
Other than Eden Prairie, only Bloomington and the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport Police are listed on the BCA website as operating ALPRs in Minnesota.
Do ALPRs reduce crime?
Proponents of the use of license plate reader technology insist that ALPRs are valuable tools for law enforcement to solve and decrease crime.
“Having an effective tool to reduce auto theft has many positive effects,” Irmiter said. “Most importantly, residents and visitors benefit from a higher quality-of-life that comes from reduced crime.
“Also, because stolen vehicles often result in high-speed pursuits that put other motorists and officers in danger, reducing the number of stolen vehicles also reduces the likelihood of negative outcomes.”
Stolen vehicles are often used to commit violent crimes, such as shootings and carjackings, Irmiter added.
“Apprehending suspects who steal vehicles can deter other violent crime,” he said.
EPPD also collaborates with surrounding law enforcement agencies to catch suspects and reduce crime, Irmiter said.
If data collected by ALPRs is shared with another agency, they must comply with all data classification, destruction and security requirements, Irmiter said. And ALPR data unrelated to an active criminal investigation cannot be shared with anyone, he said.