In Tech They Trust

A bit of not too high tech is growing increasingly pervasive these days. No, not the video camera on cellphones, but the Automated License Plate Reader.  It’s got its benefits, like the ability to capture massive quantities of data about plates and their locations. But our reliance on tech, on science, has its downside as well, which usually manifests in blind reliance that a machine can’t be wrong.

Via Tim Cushing at Techdirt:

The mistake prompting this guns-drawn approach of Molner’s video could have been made by anybody. The ALPR read a “7” as a “2” and returned a hit for a stolen vehicle. The hit also returned info for a stolen Oldsmobile, which clearly wasn’t what Molner was driving. But that could mean the plates were on the wrong vehicle, which is also an indication of Something Not Quite Right.

Lawyer Mark Molner was driving home after his wife’s sonogram in his BMW, when he was stopped by police, front and back. One of the officers approached him, gun drawn.

“He did not point it at me, but it was definitely out of the holster,” Molner told the Post. “I am guessing that he saw the shock and horror on my face, and realized that I was unlikely to make (more of) a scene.”

For the cop, preparation and the First Rule of Policing mandated he be prepared for harm. After all, the ALPR told him it was a stolen car, and people who steal cars can be threats. It makes perfect sense from the cop’s perspective.  Because tech said so.

The PD’s statement on the incident is fairly sensible and measured.

“The officer has discretion on whether or not to unholster his weapon depending on the severity of the crime. In this case he did not point it at the driver, rather kept it down to his side because he thought the vehicle could possibly be stolen. If he was 100 percent sure it was stolen, then he would have conducted a felony car stop which means both officers would have been pointing guns at him while they gave him commands to exit the vehicle.”

That makes sense, but there’s still a chance this situation could have been averted. Molner’s plate triggered the hit several miles before he was pulled over as pursuing police were unable to verify the plate due to traffic density.

Whether the police department’s statement is sensible depends largely on this combination of police perspective and reliance on technology.  The idea that a cop would be 100% certain is something of a facile comparison, since absolute certainty is hard to come by.

On the flip side, in the absence of probable cause, the officer had neither the authority to stop Molner nor justification to have a firearm drawn.  Once a firearm is drawn, even if not pointed at a person, two things dramatically increase, the likelihood of it being used and that it will evoke a reaction.

You see, Molner, who had the wisdom to be shocked and afraid, has no clue what’s going through the officer’s head, that he’s about to confront a car thief.  Since the officer’s reliance on a technological error created an expectation that he was about to enter a dangerous situation, the cop approached ready to invoke the First Rule.  But poor Molner had no reason to suspect that any “furtive gesture” could bring a bullet his way.

And, thankfully, Molner wasn’t deaf, which might have added a wholly untenable factor into a potentially toxic mix.

Molner’s reaction, after he was safely out of harm’s way, was to question why the cops didn’t wait until they could verify the information on their ALPR hit.

“I’m armchair quarterbacking the police, which is not a good position to be in,” Molner told the Post. “But before you unholster your gun, you might want to confirm that you’ve got the people you’re looking for.”

So, when the plate reader kicked back a bad hit, the cops did attempt to verify the plate, but it looks very much like they overrode procedural safeguards in order to prevent possibly losing a collar.

This seems a perfectly reasonable expectation, but for the fact that reality has a nasty way of interfering with the best conceived plans.  While the system crafted around ALPRs includes the procedural safeguard of visually verifying that the reader correctly read the license plate, that removes the system from automation and places it in the hands of humans.  If tech doesn’t glitch on its own, it will invariably fail when humans are introduced as we, humans, err sometimes.

Had this been left to the officer’s visual observation alone in the first place, perhaps the license would never have been misread. Or perhaps the cop’s eyesight isn’t any better than the ALPR, and he would have read a “7” as a “2,” returning the same false hit.  But once the ALPR returns a hit, there is a level of certainty that it must be right because tech is a marvel, a failproof thing in the minds of most of us.  Who you gonna believe, your lying eyes or tech?

As these plate readers become more common, the number of erroneous readings will increase. If the verification safeguards are followed, problems will be minimal. But if anyone’s in a hurry… or the vehicle description is too vague… or it’s night… or someone’s had a bad/slow day… or if the end of the month is approaching and the definitely-not-a-quota hasn’t been met… bad things will happen to good people.

Placing too much faith in an automated system can have terrible consequences. Molner came out of this without extra holes, electricity or bruises. Others may not be so lucky.

The good news is when the police chief gets on camera to make a statement about the inadvertent bullet hole in a nice guy’s body, it won’t be his cop’s fault.  It’s that damn ALPR that was wrong.  As we continue down the path of adoration of technological marvels, we must anticipate that errors will happen, people will be harmed, perhaps killed, and it will all be a big mistake.  But it’s tech, so that makes it all worth it.


18 thoughts on “In Tech They Trust

  1. David

    I would think, once the ALPR returns a “hit,” confirmation bias would set in and decrease the chance of noticing that 2 is really a 7. I think it feeds into the prevailing mindset of police being “get the bad guys at all costs” being the same as “protect and serve.”

  2. ExCop-LawStudent

    I disagree with your premise here. I had a similar situation, where I stopped a “stolen” car. The problem was that the originating agency never removed the license plate from the system when they recovered the car and returned it to the owner.

    The owner was ordered out of the car at gunpoint and cuffed until they were ID’ed. We then released with apologies and advised them to contact the originating agency (which we also did).

    I’ve also made reading mistakes (like the 7 for 2), etc. Here the officer did not point the weapon at the individual, but merely had it out at their side. I’ve done the same thing dozens of times, sometimes with my backup gun (because it was smaller and harder for them to see it).

    I think the officer’s actions, from what was described here, were appropriate.

    1. SHG Post author

      This is the “perspective” problem. From the cop’s perspective, it’s completely appropriate. From the person who is stopped, who has done absolutely nothing to give rise to the stop, the gun at the side, the gun at his head, the risk of a wrong move or wrong attitude, it’s not.

      If one takes the cop’s perspective, then it all makes perfect sense. If the world doesn’t revolve around the cops’ view, then it’s not appropriate. For a person who has done nothing wrong, it’s similarly appropriate that government mistakes aren’t their problem, at the risk of their life.

      Or to put it another way, the Constitution protects an individual’s right to be left alone, not a cop’s right to make a mistake.

    2. Michael

      I get everything up to and including the stop. The report was made by a machine. Police tried to confirm. Couldn’t, so pulled him over. Okay, now everyone is stopped and safely in their respective cars. Could the officer not now confirm the plate? Clearly the plate was not the one reported, nor was it the car reported. Could the officer not now, with him safe in his vehicle and the citizen safe in theirs, looked at the plate, realized the plate matches the car and was not the plate of a stolen vehicle? Why is that such an unlikely senerio?

      1. Burgers Allday

        I have an answer. there is a piece of law that comes up in civil cases against the police that says: once probable cause has been established, the police have no duty to look for (or listen to) any new exculpatory evidence, even if such exculpatory evidence would mean that probable cause no longer exists, and even if this exculpatory evidence is readily available.

        This is a rule that encourages the policeman to put on blinders once they have probable cause. New information that is seen or heard can only hurt and not help.

        I think we all remember the Florence case where dude had information showing there was no warrant. Policeman won’t look at it. If he does, he might lose his probable cause. Same thing with the woman accosted Sgt. Crowley on the sidewalk to keep him from disturbing Professor Gates. Crowley didn’t want to hear it. he would rather keep his probable cause so that he can barge into the house if the Professor gets uppity.

        1. SHG Post author

          I think you’re legally correct (though I strongly disagree with Florence), but I think ExCop-LawStudent was speaking to the practical issue, not the legal requirements.

            1. SHG Post author

              Michael’s question related to the practical rationale. Assuming (as I would of ExCop-LawStudent) that he would never want to stop or draw a gun on an innocent person, there is a means by which he could avoid being in the position of doing so. So Michael is asking why he would not do so.

            2. Burgers Allday

              To speak to the practical issue, the officer may well have looked at the license plate and see that it was wrong. He may well have known that he was stopping an innocent person. If police officers didn’t want to stop innocent people then there wouldn’t be so many pretext stops on the authority of Whren. If officers were allowed to draw their guns on all pretext stops I have no doubt that officers who make pretext stops would do just that. There is some liklihood that in this case the officer was doing a pretext stop, knowing that there wasn’t any realistic way to challenge either the stop or the drawing of the firearm. I am not saying that ECLS would have behaved and/or thought in this way, but plenty of LEOs would, I think.

            3. ExCop-LawStudent

              “Assuming (as I would of ExCop-LawStudent) that he would never want to stop or draw a gun on an innocent person, there is a means by which he could avoid being in the position of doing so.”

              That is a correct assumption. To explain further, there were four instances during my career where I could have legally pulled the trigger but did not because I did not have to pull the trigger. Once after I had been shot at, but did not have a clear line of sight back to the shooter (who was never caught).

              I understand what Michael, Burgers, and Scott are saying, but there is a distinct difference between what works on the street and the amount of time involved.

              Michael, until one can determine what the individual has as far as weapons or whatever, you do not want to leave him in the car where you can’t see what he is doing with his hands, etc.

              Burgers, I would worry about the legal ramifications way later, and never on the street. That is not to say I ignore the law, it is just that the legal nuances are not what I would be thinking of at the time.

              Scott, I agree that a person has a right to be left alone, and that it’s not the citizen’s problem. I don’t have a clue how to address that issue, under this fact pattern, other than how the officer handled it.

            4. Brett Middleton

              Of course an innocent person wants to be left alone. So does a guilty one. But society also wants policing to ensure that the guilty ones aren’t left alone. To get this policing, given that infallible police are not available, the innocent must accept that they may sometimes be subjected to mistaken interactions. It’s a necessary tradeoff.

              Naturally we want to reduce the number of these mistaken interactions as far as is feasible. But, more importantly I think, we want to minimize the duration and consequences when they do occur. If the tech is causing a rise in the number of interactions but is also catching more of the guilty, I think we could live with it if it weren’t for what appears to be a simultaneous rise in the costs — in blood and treasure — of the mistakes.

            5. Michael

              I get that the street is different, but prior to the stop there was allegedly an effort by the officer to visually confirm the license. Now the officer had the chance. In fact, from my perspective,the officer could have handled it safely and without ever leaving the car. Simple run the plate, realize they had the wrong car, and leave the scene with an apologetic wave as you pass. Or get on the loudspeaker and say thanks for stopping, but it seems I have the wrong car, have a good day. And leave. Is interaction a requirement?

  3. Kathryn Kase

    That’s some BMW if it can also perform a sonogram. No wonder the police wanted to stop it. I’ll bet the local imaging companies did, too.

  4. Michael

    Okay, contact is needed. But I still don’t understand why the officer didn’t confirm the license plate before approaching. That makes absolutely no sense to me. It’s not the kind of car that was stolen, and it’s not the plate from the stolen car. Frankly, at that point, it seems a reasonable person would have to assume there has been a glitch somewhere. Once the car was stopped, nothing matched the initial report.

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