Ascension Parish sheriff, council discuss license plate recognition cameras, gunshot spotting technology

Michael Tortorich
Gonzales Weekly Citizen

Ascension Parish Sheriff Bobby Webre discussed the possibility of adding license plate recognition cameras and gunfire detection technology during the Ascension Parish Council's finance committee meeting held June 6 in Gonzales.

The discussion included potentially upgrading lighting, adding stationary license plate recognition (known as LPR) cameras, and ShotSpotters, which listen for the sound of gunfire then alerts law enforcement on the location.

Many law enforcement agencies around the country have used license plate readers, which can be mounted to stationary poles, moving vehicles, or handheld devices. The information gathered can then be checked against databases such as those of stolen vehicles or missing persons.

In 2019, the Ascension Parish Sheriff's Office implemented two LPR systems in patrol vehicles. At the time, Webre said LPRs were a valuable tool in law enforcement to battle crime.

"An LPR reads a license plate as it passes and then automatically runs this plate through a national database to check if this license plate is wanted in connection with a crime or stolen," Webre said in 2019.

Ascension Parish Chief Administrative Officer John Diez led off the meeting discussion by pointing out the parish has up to $6 million combined in the seven lighting districts. 

Council member Travis Turner said he was in favor of the ShotSpotter technology but was "not too big on" the license plate readers.

The sheriff said everything in law enforcement has changed with technology, pointing to the department's investment in Motorola body-worn cameras, which was announced in late 2020 and rolled out throughout Ascension Parish in 2021.

"Cameras are not cheap, but they're not as expensive as they once were," Webre said to committee members.

He added that license plate readers have helped solve more crimes than almost anything else in the last two years.

"These cameras are not taking pictures of people inside cars, just getting us a description of a car and a license plate. We've solved more crime by doing that," Webre said.

License plate reading technology has not come without controversy, as some have raised concerns over mass surveillance in public places. Organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have called for legislation and law enforcement agency policies aimed at maintaining innocent citizens' privacy.

"The tracking of people’s location constitutes a significant invasion of privacy, which can reveal many things about their lives, such as what friends, doctors, protests, political events, or churches a person may visit," the ACLU states in an article on its website.

"In our society, it is a core principle that the government does not invade people’s privacy and collect information about citizens’ innocent activities just in case they do something wrong," the article continues.

Some have argued license plate readers could be misused to track individuals who are not involved in criminal activity.

In one audit conducted in California, 99.9 percent of vehicle images stored by the Los Angeles Police Department were of vehicles not on any so-called hot list at the time it was scanned. 

Several states have statutes expressly addressing the use of license plate readers and how long data can be retained.

The committee agreed to continue the discussion at its next meeting.