NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – “Fiscally irresponsible.”
Those are the comments of Senator Heidi Campbell (D-Nashville) questioning how Tennessee’s new license plate was designed and produced.
Since early February, News 2 has been examining the state’s new plate and how some License Plate Recognition (LPR) cameras cannot see it at night because of infrared reflectivity issues. Law officers have said this flaw can present possible public safety problems that include an inability to solve crimes or locate people in AMBER and Silver Alerts.
When asked about nighttime readability issues, Governor Bill Lee told News 2 on Monday, the technology companies will have to adapt to the state’s new plate design. “License plate readers come in old technology and new technology and matching technology with the license plates is what will happen across the state as agencies upgrade their technology to make sure they can read the license plates that’s what we see happening.”
According to Department of Revenue officials, as of Friday, March 25, 2.2 million plates have been produced, and 1,096,462 plates have been issued to registrants. Additionally, Revenue officials say they are continuing to produce and issue plates and will provide a sample plate to any ALPR manufacturer who requests one.
State officials also say they have been in discussions with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) regarding testing opportunities. The not-for-profit tests license plates for various conditions including LPR reflectivity for free.
Friday, Senator Heidi Campbell weighed in on the new license plate and the LPR issue. “It might be funny if this was happening somewhere else, but it is not, but this is another example of this administration making decisions that are fiscally irresponsible.”
Campbell said the topic has come up in discussions with her peers on Capitol Hill. “In this instance, it puts us in a position where we worry about the security of the process, you talk about a system set up to ID and capture criminals and here we are creating license plates that cannot be seen by that system.”
The Senate Democrat sits on multiple committees, including the fiscal review committee, that oversees how state money is spent. “I think it is very irresponsible to continue with this process until we take a moment to figure out how we will remedy that.”
According to documents obtained by News 2, the Department of Revenue designed and produced the new license plate without first testing it.
News 2 filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and obtained numerous documents and emails.
One email, dated February 7, 2022, sent to multiple members of the Department of Revenue, including Commissioner David Gerregano, states: “AAMVA offers recommendations, but we never share our license plates with them for review. We follow the same standards as all other states with the standard size and reflective sheeting.”
After News 2’s investigation, the agency began looking to test the new plates. A Department of Revenue email chain from February 24, 2022, states: “Allison and DG talked some already about AAMVA doing LPR testing on plates. Apparently, they can do it for free, but they only send samples in every couple of months. He was wondering if you could ask them what the turnaround would be for us to use their free service or alternatively if we could work with their vendor directly.”
One of the major vendors in the LPR industry, Flock Safety said in a lengthy interview earlier in the week, they didn’t know about the problem with LPRs and the state’s new plates until the company was notified by law enforcement agencies who are clients that they were experiencing problems.
The spokesperson said they have had one communication with the Department of Revenue to date on this issue. They said they would have liked to have been included in the discussions before the plate had been produced.
“We had one conversation with them after we learned about the issue. And unfortunately, like, they just didn’t have much of a plan to resolve it. It was that, hey, this is legal, we’re going to go ahead and keep rolling with this. We’d love to be involved in testing and helping to improve these things. Again, we just haven’t been involved in it to this today,” said Josh Thomas, VP of Communications for Flock Safety.
To which Heidi Campbell added, “That is absolutely true, and we see that a lot with contracts in the state where they don’t consult people on the ground dealing with things. We saw this with COVID in the medical industry and now to see that they haven’t consulted with people familiar with the process, it is alarming.”
There are many LPR companies using different technologies, and the state has no official obligation to make a license plate that is readable to LPR cameras.
According to numbers supplied by the state Department of Revenue, each new plate costs taxpayers $2.67 to produce.
Friday afternoon, the Department of Revenue sent News 2 the following email:
“The memo we provided you last week best addresses ALPR technology with respect to the new plate. As you know, ALPR technology performance varies widely. We continue to produce and distribute the new license plate, and no changes to the plate are planned.”