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License plate readers won’t be installed in Omaha at least for now, Sheriff’s Office pulled the proposal

A plan that would have permitted the use of license plate readers on the streets of Omaha will not forward.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office removed the planned agreement off the agenda of the City Council on Tuesday, a week after the cameras were the focus of a long discussion before the council.

Chief Deputy Wayne Hudson told The World-Herald on Wednesday morning, “After last week’s discussion with City Council, we felt we lacked the backing to continue forward.”

Some law enforcement agencies have promoted the contentious equipment as an effective investigation tool. Opponents, however, believe that its utility is overshadowed by possible civil rights abuses.

Automatic license plate readers are cameras installed on police vehicles or fixed roadside devices that capture every passing license plate. The images of the license plates, together with the time, date, and location, are captured and sent to a database.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office has just installed 15 of these devices on county roadways, but need authorization from the Municipal of Omaha to install an additional 10 along the boundary between county and city authority.

Flock Safety, an Atlanta-based firm that provides license plate technology, has provided the Sheriff’s Office with a free 12-month trial of the cameras. This year, the Kearney Police Department was the first law enforcement agency in Nebraska to accept the company’s free trial offer.

According to Will Niemack, a captain with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office agreed to the trial due in part to a recent increase in crime.

“We do believe the cameras will have a positive effect in catching criminals,” Niemack told council members during a public hearing last week.

The Flock devices utilize data from the National Crime Information Center database, a computerized index of criminal justice information such as criminal record history, fugitives, stolen property, and missing persons. If a stolen car passes by one of the license plate scanners, the Sheriff’s Office is notified.

Currently, the Bellevue Police Department, Lancaster County, and Seward County deploy similar devices.

Nonetheless, at last week’s public meeting, several individuals, including some council members, voiced concerns over the collecting of so much data and its possible use.

“What this program is is a systematic surveillance of the people of Omaha,” said Spike Eickholt on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska. “We encourage the City Council not to approve this ordinance. Alternatively we would ask that you wait and see. It’s a trial period, wait and see how it works for them.”

The week prior, Niemack informed the council that the data is held by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and is maintained in a cloud with security protections comparable to those employed by the FBI.

Niemack stated that the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office will automatically destroy data every 30 days. State law mandates that acquired data be deleted within 180 days, unless it is necessary for a criminal investigation or prosecution. He added that for data to be retained beyond 30 days, it must be considered as evidence in an ongoing investigation.

Flock also provides a webpage that displays Sheriff’s Office use stats.

“That transparency within (the trial) is going to be an interesting test because not only are we looking for proactive, productive investigative measures,” Niemack said, “but we’re also looking for ways for the community to engage with that so that we can help deter crime.”

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