News / Ottawa

Police ramping up ALPR program

Police will be outfitting a second vehicle with the $40,000 license-plate-reading technology, and will be using data to target suspended drivers.

Joe Lofaro / Metro Order this photo

Ottawa police have declared their first year using automatic license plate reader (ALPR) technology a success, and are going to be ramping up their use of the technology to more specifically target suspended drivers.

In the first year of using ALPR cameras on a single patrol vehicle, Ottawa police caught 140 suspended drivers, 255 unlicensed drivers, over 1,700 expired validations, and 4 stolen vehicles.

“It’s just doing a job we used to do, but far more effectively,” said Sergeant Robert Cairns. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Now, Ottawa Police have plans to expand the program, outfitting a second vehicle with a set of three cameras that will allow it to scan up to three license plates every second.

More significantly, they are also beginning to use targeted, predictive policing methods to nab drivers. Using a list of suspended drivers provided to them by the provincial Ministry of Transportation, Ottawa police will target their use of the vehicles to areas in the city with the highest concentration of offenders.

“We get a list of suspended drivers from the Ministry of Transportation, and [a crime analyst] has produced a heat map very recently, showing by postcode, he can actually designate areas that have large amounts of suspended drivers,” said Cairns. “So we will be concentrating our enforcement on this heat map initially. This past year, it’s been ‘where do you want to go?‘”

This has privacy advocates concerned.

“We have more concerns with the potential civil liberties implications of predictive policing,” said Brenda McPhail, director of the privacy, technology & surveillance project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “Was the data that was fed into the system reliable? Are there processes in place for the way that data is obtained? Are we using historical data, when we know that historically certain areas are over-policed?”

Cairns says that his department does not receive granular data, meaning specific individuals cannot be targeted. But he did say that the map was produced in-house, meaning Ottawa police can identify suspended drivers with a fair amount of specificity, before catching them on the road.

The Ministry of Transportation was unable to confirm, by press time, the nature of the data they provide, nor its intended use.

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