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RUPD launches license plate readers at campus entrances

Vivian Lang / Thresher

By Keegan Leibrock     1/31/23 11:20pm

The Rice University Police Department recently began piloting a system of Automated License Plate Readers throughout campus. The ALPR cameras, which scan license plate numbers and vehicle details, will be used by RUPD to provide investigative data when a crime occurs on campus.

RUPD Chief Clemente Rodriguez said that the decision to launch the camera’s pilot program was not based on any particular trend in crime rates on campus.

“I don’t want to say there’s been any particular change or spike or anything [in crime levels],” Rodriguez said. “We are always just looking at technology, looking at ways that we can improve safety on campus.”

Tyler Kinzy, a Wiess College sophomore, said that he believes the use of ALPR cameras heightens the risk of police violence.

“The expanding of policing and the surveillance state through tools like ALPR cameras only heightens the risk of police violence without actually improving community safety,” Kinzy said. “If more police and broader surveillance were genuinely the answer to crime, we would have solved this issue decades ago.” 

According to Rodriguez, the camera’s gradual decrease in cost played some role in the decision to purchase them.

“The cost of this technology continues to get better and better and become more affordable over time, which also makes it a good idea to implement now,” Rodriguez said. “If it’s going to keep the campus safe, then I think we owe it to the Rice community to try and explore that option.”

Krish Kumar, a Student Association New Student Representative, said that members of the Rice SA are drafting a resolution to question the validity of using license scanners for crimes committed on campus.

“There are multiple news articles and professional research that’s been done to show that these systems are inherently racist and necessarily target certain individuals over others,” Kumar, a Sid Richardson College freshman, said. “SA wants to take a position to let RUPD know that launching a system like this is probably not the best way to go about addressing crime on campus.”

Rodriguez said that the cameras do not scan for pedestrians and only rely on data from scanned license plate numbers and vehicle details.

“[The] license plate readers do not collect information on who is driving or riding in vehicles … [or] capture images of pedestrians or people passing by,” Rodriguez wrote in an email to the Thresher. “The ALPR cameras take still images of cars passing through the lens (not video) and do not follow the direction of travel vehicles take. Therefore, I believe this removes any bias from the data provided by the cameras.

RUPD will run a 45-day pilot to determine if the new technology is effective in providing investigative data for crimes committed before expanding the program, according to Rodriguez.

“Eventually, if the pilot is a success, we hope to have all major entrances to campus that are open regularly being watched with cameras,” Rodriguez said. “We only have five [cameras] right now for the pilot … [watching] entrances eight, one, four, seventeen and eighteen. Those are the major entrances right now where a lot of traffic [goes] through.”

Rodriguez said the cameras would also allow for the identification of vehicles stolen from campus.

“If any vehicle is stolen from Rice, we can put that license plate in as a stolen vehicle, and if somebody who stole that vehicle passes any other cameras from this company Flock … it would alert that community that a vehicle stolen at Rice University has shown up in their city or their community.”

So far, Rodriguez said that the majority of response to the pilot program has been positive, with only a few students raising concerns.

“[RUPD] has only heard maybe a handful of responses to the communication that went out … the majority were, ‘thank you, I appreciate it and think that this will be a great tool for safety,’” Rodriguez said. 

Kumar said he would like to see more communication from RUPD on the reasoning behind implementing license scanners.

“Personally, I think there needs to be a little more communication from RUPD about their initiative and what the goal of using these systems is,” Kumar said. “I would like to see a bit more context as to why they’re launching it at Rice and really what steps they’re taking to ensure that it’s going to help Rice students on campus as a whole.”

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