City of Austin moving forward with license plate reader pilot program

After months of community input and tweaks to the policy, the City of Austin will be moving forward with a license plate reader pilot program. The use of LPRs was halted in 2020. 

In September 2022, city council members approved a resolution brought forward by council member Mackenzie Kelly to explore reinstating a program.

Two resolutions were passed during the June 8 meeting, one related to the contract and the other related to timelines for data retention and the program itself.

However, the license plate must fall into one of the categories on the following hot list for officers to be notified: license plates listed as stolen, B.O.L.O., SILVER and AMBER alerts, wanted individuals with any Class A misdemeanor offense or greater warrant, Class B and Class C misdemeanor hate crimes, or Class B and Class C misdemeanor sex crimes.

"I firmly believe that our data is going to be protected. There are certain regulations in place that will prevent the abuse of data, including regular audits," said council member Kelly. "And it's my hope that this data that the police officers get will help us as a city be safer."

Other Texas cities have their own programs in place. This week, the City of Kyle approved the use of LPRs.

However, questions have been brought up by the community regarding the policy and what kind of oversight will be in place.

"We've seen law enforcement use them to enforce laws that this community doesn't agree with has deprioritized, if not outright decriminalized," said Chris Harris, director of policy for the Austin Justice Coalition at a council meeting earlier this month.

"We need to ensure that, even the accidental misuse of it, where people have switched license plates out and now, I'm pulling over the wrong car and holding people at gunpoint, that we are accommodating and ensuring that precautions are being taken to prevent those issues."


Council member Kelly was happy to see the pilot program move forward but skeptical about the 7-day retention policy that was ultimately chosen, though there is an exception for data related to ongoing criminal investigations. 

"Officers need to know to look for the data in the first place, and with the vacancies that we have at the department, a lot of our investigators are being put back on to patrol, and they're not having as much time to go and investigate crimes," said Council member Kelly. "So my biggest concern is that with seven days of holding on to this data, we're going to lose data that could potentially solve a crime further down the road."

The pilot program will last one year from the time it officially goes into effect.

Before the program comes to an end, data will be reviewed, and the city could decide to make changes to the policy or extend the program.