The on-air shootings of a reporter and cameraman in Virginia last week, carried out by their former co-worker, have naturally left our nation stunned. In the relatively short period of time since this horrific event occurred, we have seen a flood of information pour out regarding the gunman and his victims. Among this information is a 23-pagemanifesto that the shooter, a man by the name of Vester Lee Flanagan, apparently faxed to ABC News in New York. The document, filled with a litany of complaints and justification for his actions, raises more questions than it answers.
Despite all the unknowns in this case, we do have one solid and incontrovertible fact: Flanagan was apprehended very quickly by Virginia State Police. The reason is because he was detected by an Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) system. Roughly five hours after Flanagan had committed his crimes, a diligent state trooper equipped with ALPR identified him, caught him and thereby ensured he would harm no one else. People have been particularly interested in the role the ALPR technology played in capturing Flanagan, as evidenced by several leading consumer news outlets like Newsweek and Fox News covering the ALPR story.
Why the sudden interest from the public who is often skeptical about ALPR and video surveillance in general? I believe the answer to be that the Virginia incident positively illustrates the benefits of ALPR and how it is a necessity to the cause of public safety, contrary to the many misconceptions about the technology.
Let’s take a look at some of the advantages of ALPR through the context of the Virginia incident.
Although ALPR is overwhelmingly favored by law enforcement and security agencies, it has come under fire by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who have in turn influenced organizations to refrain from using it. The main argument from these groups is that ALPR conducts “Big Brother” surveillance, encroaching on privacy and gathering too much information from civilians. The truth is license plates are public information so there is no expectation of privacy. Additionally, the data that ALPR systems aggregate is protected, which is enforced by audit and retention features. Lastly, law officers only look up a plate if they are given a reason to such as if it has been identified on a hotlist.
If you look at any technology, there are always pros and cons; however, as a civilized society, we must always weigh the good against the bad. In the case of ALPR, the bad is heavily outweighed by the good. I hope that the events in Virginia will help open the public’s eyes to the reality of the situation and that this newfound realization will be reflected in the willingness of our legislators to enable the men and women who protect us to make use of ALPR to its fullest potential.