GREEN BAY - It didn't take long for police in Green Bay to put new license-plate cameras to the test in a criminal investigation.
The first real-life test came when there was an assault, with shots fired, apparently at a car. Officers weren't immediately able to find eyewitnesses. But they were able to get information about a vehicle being used by a potential suspect in the assault.
Not long after, that vehicle passed one of the two dozen license-plate reading cameras the city is testing. Soon, the city had the vehicle's plate number, which enabled officers to look up the name and address of the registered owner.
They were able to identify and question a suspect within days, Police Chief Christopher Davis said, and later recommend charges.
The lesson: If the cameras can shorten the time it takes for officers to resolve a situation, Davis said, the technology might have a long-term future in the department.
But the city still has questions to address before the Police Department would permanently use these cameras in crime-fighting. Six weeks into a two-month test of the cameras, police officials have essentially boiled the questions down to this issue: Are they the best way to invest resources?
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Or, is it better to invest more money on training officers to do things machines can't?
In some cities the cameras also have raised privacy concerns. But Davis says that because the cameras capture images that are visible on public streets, it's unlikely they would show anything someone could legitimately expect to keep private.
It's possible the images could be used in a criminal prosecution, if evidence was needed to show a particular vehicle was at a particular spot at a specific time, but the cameras are positioned in such a way - behind vehicles, essentially - that they won't show the faces of drivers or passengers.
More likely, officers would use what they learned from the image - a car's license-plate number, for example - to find the address of the vehicle's owner. That could come in handy if, for example, a car crashes into a parked vehicle and the driver leaves the scene without reporting it.
In July, Davis told Green Bay City Council members on the Protection and Policy Committee how the Police Department is proceeding with the camera trial:
» Green Bay will have two months to test the cameras at no cost. After that, the first two years of use would be billed at $70,000 a year. Davis indicated that virtually all of the first year's cost could be covered by Community Development Block Grant money. That would give the department a year to prepare its 2024 budget to determine how to address funding questions that arise in Year 2.
» The cameras have been mounted on poles around the city, most overlooking streets that carry 7,000 vehicles or more per day. Several cameras have been placed at locations where problems can develop quickly - the bridges crossing the Fox River, for example, where a simple truck crash could snarl traffic on both sides of the river. They're capturing data, but nothing a member of the public couldn't see with the naked eye.
"They're in locations where drivers have no expectation of privacy," Davis said. The idea: Enable officers to "see" where a pedestrian could see, but not where a person would expect a degree of privacy - not in a fenced backyard.
» Cameras can photograph rear license plates and enable officers to get basic descriptions of a vehicle of interest. In June 2020, a person involved in a fatal shooting on the near west side fled the scene in a car; the person's getaway attempt would likely have been captured by a camera.
» What won't the cameras do? They won't generate red-light tickets, like cameras in some areas of Chicago, or detect speeding violations. Camera-generated tickets are not allowed in Wisconsin.
The photographs the cameras capture are available to officers - provided they have a legitimate law enforcement reason.
City Council member Bill Morgan didn't need much time to support the idea of officers having another tool.
"Almost all of what I've heard are success stories," he said. "We're short manpower as it is, so I'm 100 percent for" using cameras.
Green Bay wouldn't be the first northeastern Wisconsin department to use the cameras. The region's next largest city police agency, in Appleton, began using license-plate-reading cameras in 2020, said Lt. Meghan Cash, that department's public information officer.
Tools that can reduce risk to the officer or anyone else can be a benefit, Cash said.
For example, an officer might not have to chase after a driver recklessly fleeing from a minor crash, which could create more danger for others. With a license-plate camera, the officer could review the tape at shift's end and later deliver a ticket, or a lecture about safe driving.
Like Davis, Cash also noted that license-plate cameras can reduce the time needed for officers to "canvass" a neighborhood - searching, say, for witnesses to an incident, or for a vehicle that was involved in a problem.
Cameras don't replace people doing investigative and crime-prevention work, she said. They can just help them do it better and faster.
"It's a tool that we've been willing to use," Cash said. "We're always willing to test new technology, as long as it doesn't become a substitute for doing real police work."
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Green Bay police hope license plate cameras can aid investigations