By

Cedric Dent Jr.

Special to the News

The Mt. Juliet Police Department announced last week the institution of Guardian Shield, a new law enforcement program designed to protect the city from crime by using fixed-place automated license plate readers (ALPRs) to catch hot-listed vehicles attached to various crimes and suspects.

The Guardian Shield program has not yet been fully budgeted and could, therefore, require the mayor and city commissioners to amend the fiscal budget for a yet unknown amount. On the other hand, MJPD Capt. Tyler Chandler said the amount “would be minimal” due to the city having already budgeted $100,000 for the program.

The program will be operated by Rekor Systems Inc., a tech firm focused on the use of artificial intelligence applications for public safety solutions. The firm boasts of providing law enforcement and security solutions in more than 70 countries worldwide, and they were one of four firms whose technology was tested in the city — one of three to respond to MJPD’s request for proposals.

Mt. Juliet police worked with IT professionals during an extensive review of ALPRs from not only Rekor Systems but also Skycop, Vigilant and Flock. They concluded that Rekor’s system performed best, and the conclusion was partly based on the fact that Rekor’s product led MJPD to successfully apprehend a wanted shooter who had driven into the city from Franklin.

“Rekor’s Edge and Watchman vehicle recognition technology provided better results than its competition during our trial period,” according to Police Chief James Hambrick. “With higher accuracy than other providers, as well as the ability to affordably scale, Rekor’s solutions fit the needs of our department both now and for the future.”

The scale to which he referred starts with covering 37 undisclosed areas throughout the city with Rekor’s AI-assisted cameras, and these locations were selected in order to make for the most efficient coverage of the entire Mt. Juliet community.

MJPD has emphasized on more than one occasion that ALPRs are not for use in traffic law enforcement; rather, they’re purposed with recognizing vehicles that are either attached to a hotlist or to investigations in progress. Hotlists are made for vehicles connected to specific crimes like forcible rape, criminal homicide, kidnapping, motor vehicle theft, burglary, robbery, aggravated assault, general theft or certain drug offenses.

For $89,000 per year, Rekor Systems will support these ALPR units, assuming contract negotiations are successful. According to Chandler, this “means that if we provide a mounting surface, Rekor handles the installation and maintenance of the system. If it is damaged, they fix it. If it is having technical issues, they fix it. If they upgrade their technology, they replace it.”

The contract, however, is still being finalized, so elements remain subject to change. Once the contract is completed, it will be made available to the public, pending local government approval.

“It will also have two be approved by the Board of Commissioners,” Chandler added.

Transparency is a sticking point with ALPRs since multiple cities and states like Chicago, Virginia and Texas have been led to civil suits over apparent violations of privacy laws, gathering too much information on drivers and holding it for too long. Tennessee, and much more so Mt. Juliet, has made a conscious effort to obviate such possibilities from the equation with strict measures on data retention.

The state mandates that data collected via ALPRs can only be held for 90 days whereas the city shortens this even further to only 30 days. This data includes not only still images but videos of the vehicle, but in Mt. Juliet, the technology will not be used to track drivers or passengers. Furthermore, the system doesn’t access the state’s license plate database, which means personal data and vehicle ownership are not collected through these ALPRs.

MJPD expects Rekor’s units to be deployed in March or late February.