Student Newsroom

Urbana City Council hears resident concerns about license-plate tracking

Photo of Urbana police chief speaking with microphone

Urbana Chief of Police Bryant Seraphin speaks at a town hall about license plate readers on October 28, 2021, in the Vineyard Church in Urbana. Justin Malone

URBANA, Ill. — Champaign County’s NAACP and the City of Urbana hosted town hall forums on Oct. 28 and 29 to discuss the city’s plan to buy automated license plate readers.

The readers are pieces of stationary roadside technology that take images of the back of any car that passes, including the license plate.

City officials, including Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin, said they hope the readers will give police more leads in gun violence cases by identifying people in the area of a crime when it occurred.

“If we solve one murder, if one person is held accountable, if one family has some justice, then I think it’s a success,” Marlin said. 

But many Urbana residents voiced their concerns about privacy at the town halls.

“Whoever’s capturing that information, in this instance it’s the police, can know not just where you live and work, but also who your friends are, what religious affiliation you might have, [and be] able to figure out who’s traveling and where,” said Anita Chen, a University of Illinois professor and Urbana resident.

Chen said she is worried the license plate readers could be used to track the movements of law-abiding residents.

City officials said the readers could help police to more easily find suspects and witnesses at crime scenes.

The Urbana City Council is split on this issue, and some council members have voiced privacy concerns.

Others — like council member Shirese Hursey, who proposed the technology — said addressing rising gun violence is more important.

“If you are on a public thoroughfare, if you've got a cell phone [and] if you tell the Lexus to play your favorite jam, your privacy is already in question,” Hursey said.

Justin Malone is a student journalist with the Illinois Student Newsroom at Illinois Public Media. You can follow him on Twitter @jsidneymalone.