MENTOR, Ohio — Blink and you might miss them.
License plate readers (LPRs) are sprinkled throughout Northeast Ohio, and 15 just went up in the city of Mentor in recent weeks.
“Officers can’t be everywhere at every time, so these cameras will notify us if a license plate comes back as a hit,” said Mentor Police Chief Ken Gunsch.
A hit means it’s a stolen vehicle, there are warrants associated with the plates, or it could possibly be a missing person.
Chief Gunsch said in the short amount of time they’ve been up and running, they’ve already had 15 cases that have been helped by the LPRs.
“Anytime new technology can be a tool for us to help protect the community and apprehend criminals before they commit other crimes, I think it was a great advantage for us,” Gunsch added.
Mentor’s 15 license plate readers will run the department about $35,000 a year — what Chief Gunsch calls a cost-effective crime deterrent.
Over on the west side, Fairview Park Police have been using one LPR since 2018, given to them by Cuyahoga County.
“It has helped,” said Fairview Park Police Lt. Michael Wickes. “We’ve recovered stolen vehicles, we’ve found missing persons that were entered from other jurisdictions.”
Lt. Wickes said the LPRs only hit on vehicles with issues associated with them.
They don’t track and store innocent motorists' information long-term, which was a concern of the ACLU when more and more cities started using them.
“I haven’t gotten any pushback at all,” Lt. Wickes said. “The cameras only hit on things where people have a deep concern anyway — where someone is wanted or missing or a stolen vehicle. They’re not there just to check people and keep track of them.”
Chief Gunsch added that he understands concerns about people not wanting to be watched — but he is ultimately grateful for another tool in their crime-fighting toolbox to keep their city safe.
“We’re not watching those cameras, those cameras are notifying us when a stolen vehicle associated with the plate, the person has warrants. If none of that applies, we have no idea that you’re even driving by there,” he said.
At least sixteen states have explicit statutes that address the use of automated license plate readers — who can use them, and how long the data can be stored. Ohio is not one of them.