University Police to begin using license plate reader technology

URBANA, Illinois – Five license plate readers will be installed at key locations on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus as University Police seek modern solutions to maintain campus safety.

The technological tools will complement the ongoing proactive policing and outreach initiatives that University Police have already undertaken – including extra patrols, new security cameras, additional safety education and supportive mental health resources provided through its REACH team, along with other collaborative university initiatives.

“Technology like this is a valuable deterrence and enforcement tool, and the license plate readers add another layer of safety to our campus area,” said U. of I. Executive Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police Alice Cary. “Our police officers, security guards and student patrol officers are committed to campus safety and are very effective in protecting our students, faculty and staff. But they cannot be everywhere at once, and license plate readers help to fill one of those gaps.”

The new technology will be in use at high-traffic arterial intersections that are used as routes in and out of the campus area. Two already have been installed: one at the intersection of University and Lincoln avenues, and another at the intersection of Florida and Lincoln avenues. Three more are scheduled for installation before the spring 2022 semester, and the exact locations of those will be finalized closer to the installation dates.

An incident of gun violence on Nov. 7 was an example of where license plate readers can be effective. In that incident, two vehicles sped through the intersection at high speed immediately after shots were fired about a block west of that location. Although security cameras at First Street and Kirby Avenue captured images of the two vehicles immediately prior to shots being fired, it is difficult to identify a specific vehicle without license plate information.

“We have a safe campus, but no community is entirely crime-free,” Cary said. “We have proactive strategies in place to prevent violence, and those strategies have minimized the activity we have seen in the immediate campus area. But we must explore every option available to us to identify offenders and hold them accountable when crime does occur.”

The first-year cost for the license plate readers, including the cost of the devices themselves, plus installation and implementation fees, is $13,750. Maintenance, support and software for the license plate readers will cost $12,500 annually.

Image of a license plate reader against a cloudy sky
This license plate reader has been installed on Florida Avenue near Lincoln Avenue.

University Police have a strong track record with employing technology to deter and solve crime. For more than a decade, the department has used a network of more than 2,200 security cameras to a great degree of success in criminal investigations. Strict policies are in place to restrict use of those cameras to a relatively limited number of official purposes.

The cameras are not monitored except during active incidents or during special events with large crowds. Video footage is deleted after 30 days if it is not used.

Similarly, the license plate reader data will only be accessed for active investigations. Strict policies are in place to prevent misuse, and access is limited to a relatively small number of people in the police department.

“Through years of experience and working with community organizations, we fully understand and appreciate the delicate nature of using technology as a tool in law enforcement,” Cary said. “We don’t see this as surveillance. We have no interest in monitoring the movements of everyday people through our campus, and we wouldn’t have the staff to do that even if we wanted to. This is all about deterring crime and holding violent offenders accountable.”