Early in 2022, the Detroit News reported that criminals had taken to the city's freeways to settle arguments with guns and avoid the city's network of high-definition surveillance cameras at gas stations and other locations. Michigan State Police reports show at least two shootings happened every month on Wayne, Oakland and Macomb county freeways in 2021. And that is despite increased police patrols that were launched in response to what officials said was then an unprecedented wave of high-speed violence.
First Lt. Michael Shaw of the Michigan State Police joins the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast this week to talk about how license plate readers are being deployed to help.
Later, he talks about how excessive speeding continues even as the pandemic subsided and more vehicles returned to the roads. He talked about the increase in speeding and fatal crashes on a previous edition early in the pandemic.
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Hello, welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation Podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson. Today I'm going to be talking again with Lieutenant Mike Shaw with the Michigan State Police. He's the public information officer in the Metro Detroit District and he always has a great deal of insight about what's going on with various things related to speeds and crashes and overall law enforcement. Very recently, the state police and other police agencies around Michigan have joined many across the country in implementing the use of license plate readers to identify and find vehicles driven by people believed to have been involved in some kind of crime. Advocates of this technology will tell you that this is not facial recognition, this is not about invading the privacy of innocent people, but that it's an important tool to take bad people off the streets. The American Civil Liberties Union has expressed concerns about privacy, while conceding that it probably is a good law enforcement tool and maybe leads to better public safety. So he's going to talk about that first and how it's worked so far with the license plate readers in Metro Detroit, and then we'll talk a little bit, too, about what we're seeing with crashes and speeds. I spoke to him in the height of the pandemic, when speeds increased dramatically as there were fewer people on the road and people just were driving faster and the trends show that that hasn't really declined, despite a return of most of those vehicles to the Michigan roads. First, Lieutenant Mike Shaw of the Michigan State Police, we haven't spoken in a while. Actually, it was a few years ago, during the height of the pandemic, when we first saw traffic drop dramatically on the freeways. But unfortunately, with that came a rise in speeds and I want to talk to you a little bit about what's going on with the crash numbers later. But first the topic of the day it's on a lot of people's minds is license plate readers. I know you've done quite a few media interviews on the topic, and you have looked into it and explained well, I think, the benefits of this and why it could really be a help in terms of public safety. So, do you want to give me your pitch?Lieutenant Michael Shaw:
Sure, so, I think, a lot of people anytime that technology advances, we all get a little nervous about it. We're not even talking about license plate readers anymore. We're talking about AI and how it's going to take everybody's job and kids are going to be able to cheat in school and stuff. So, as we kind of work through these processes of getting this technology, the best thing is to really talk about it and use facts, not a lot of nervous talk or anything like that. And the fact of these license plate readers is, first of all, the Michigan State Police; Mike Shaw, I don't care what you're doing every day. That's for Amazon, that's your cell phone, that those are the folks that care about what you're doing every day. What we're using these tools for is pretty simple. We've seen a rise in road rage, incidents on our freeways, and unfortunately, we've also seen a rise in freeway shootings, and a lot of time they're not random freeway shootings but they're criminal activity that starts somewhere else, right up in the neighborhoods or something, and then ends up onto the freeway. A lot of times the victims aren't more cooperative in theirs because they're part of this criminal activity, right? So what these license plate readers do actually allow us to look at the vehicles that witnesses give us something like that, go into these license plate readers and actually see what's going on, see the cars that match that description and again, investigative lead right. You don't get arrested just because your license plate shows up on a license plate reader. That gives the detective something to work on from evidence that they've gained from the scene already. One thing we wanted to make sure when we started this pilot project and you know we've had license plate readers in Michigan probably for about the last 10 to 12 years, so using border areas, things like that. But now we're doing this pilot project in the Metro Detroit area to kind of see if it can help us curtail some of that activity. So that's what we're using them for, as far as that goes. Also, they're useful in the latest Amber Alert that we had where we're able to track that suspect that was coming from Lansing down into the Metro Detroit area. Those license plate readers were able to pick up that vehicle as it went along and allow, you know, police to kind of track that person down and finally bring them into custody. So it has a lot of good purposes but it's not to figure out where you're going or what you're doing every day. We're too busy for that.Jeff Cranson:
Well, you know we talk about different funding methods and road use charges and mileage base, user fees and things like that. That, would you know, charge how many many miles we drive, rather than the fuel tax, which is a diminishing resource. People often cite that fear of you know I'm being tracked. Yet we all carry at least one electronic device with us every day that tracks our every move. So I've never understood how people concerned about the privacy of that reconcile, you know, their electronic devices. I suppose there are some people out there that refuse to carry a cell phone, but not very many. Talk a little bit about how often do you see cars without a license plate? Because I got to believe that the bad guys are always trying to stay one step ahead.Lieutenant Michael Shaw:
So not often yet. That was a fear. We kind of weighed some of the issues of are we going to talk about this, you know, super openly? And one of the things I've done since I've been the public information officer for MSP is we've been totally transparent about everything that we've done in the department and we kind of weighed both. You know, do we tell the public that we're increasing these license plate readers and take a chance of, you know, criminals taking their license plate off or going to look for these license plate readers and actually destroy them? That's why we're very reluctant to give locations and things like that or even describe what they look like, because we have seen that we've had a couple of destroyed in the pilot program where, you know, in areas that they've been very effective, criminals have gone out to look for those license plate readers and actually destroy them. So we've been very concerned about that portion of it. But yeah, it's a great tool and we wanted to make sure that we kind of told everybody that we had them out there and that we're using them.Jeff Cranson:
So what do you think is behind it? I mean, did this relate to the pandemic? Did you see a spike in these like freeway shootings and those kinds of crimes? Is there something else going on? Is there a trend there, or do you think that things are about the same as they were, you know, five or ten years ago?Lieutenant Michael Shaw:
So we didn't see a lot of freeway shootings at the time before the pandemic, but we're continuing to see them at the same rate after the pandemic. So I don't know if the pandemic was the start of it. I'm sure that there's a lot of scholars out there with the long beards in the college classrooms that are going to be looking at this for years and years to come to kind of look at it. But we've also seen it not only in freeway shootings but just in crime in general. Right, there seems to be a new me society instead of a we society where people get upset for the littlest things you know. Down in my district we've heard about people that actually been shot over a burnt piece of chicken on a barbecue. We've had people shot on the freeway because they failed to let somebody in. But we've also seen crime increase across the state and you know this isn't just a Michigan problem, it's a nation problem. Crime increased everywhere, from I think everybody's seen the photos of shoplifting problems, right, not to shootings or anything. But it kind of escalates from there where you know people in the West Coast area will just walk into a store and clean it out and then you never saw that kind of stuff before. So I think there's something going on societally between that, maybe a little bit of social media, maybe a lack of respect for others that we're kind of seeing as we go along. That's all tied together and it was the pandemic, the start of it. That's not up for me to really say.Jeff Cranson:
No, but I think there's ample evidence that social media has played into that, that anger. It's, you know, one of those great contradictions. Something that's supposed to make people better connected seems to make this less connected and, you know, less concerned or caring about our fellow humans. That's my editorial statement, I guess. So tell me what you think about. You mentioned, you know, shootings because somebody wouldn't let somebody in. Do LPRs help with with road rage cases as you investigate those?Lieutenant Michael Shaw:
It makes it a lot easier because sometimes, let's face it, if you get into a road rage incident and there's really nobody that just ignores it, right, and that's our number one key advice if somebody gets mad at you, flips you the bird, does all that kind of stuff, just don't engage with them, go about your business. But sometimes people just can't do that right. They get upset too because they think they're in the right and that's the bad thing is, everybody always thinks they're the best driver in the world until somebody actually confronts them on them. So, yes, we find out trouble like that all the time, where the people that are involved in it may not get a license plate but they may get a description of the car or we may get a tip. Somebody may call in and say, hey, I saw this incident and it was a red Jeep or there's a different kind of car to where we can go in there and look at that timeframe through those license plate readers and get all the red Jeeps that go through there and again, just an investigative lead. That doesn't mean that every red Jeep that shows up there is the one that's involved, but it gives detectives a place to start to start to eliminate suspects of these and hopefully get down to the person that actually committed the crime.Jeff Cranson:
Well, if anything, when you talk about protecting the innocent by being able to nail it down, not just by the description of the vehicle but with the actual license plate, that probably eliminates a needless visit to somebody's house for an investigation or questions of somebody just because they had a red Jeep right.Lieutenant Michael Shaw:
Absolutely so, I think it's with all technology right. There's always a human factor to it. So we got to be careful. As police agencies, we have to set proper policies because we don't want anybody to end up being falsely arrested. That is just the worst thing that could happen. So we wanna make sure that we have the ample evidence to support that. It's the same with facial recognition right. There's no such thing as a false positive and facial recognition. What it is is a detective that didn't do their job. They got an investigative lead and then they went out there and instead of investigating it, they just went out there and arrested somebody for it without even looking into it, and later on you find out that person was in another state or something like that. So it's a great tool to use. Just like you know, there's too many CSI and true crime stories out there. Absolutely we use your cell phone too. Right, if we can get you in a geo-fence area of a crime and your cell phone's going, and then that matches with that license plate reader and then somebody picks you out and facial recognition helps it. It all gets to that final stage of being able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that somebody committed a crime.Jeff Cranson:
And when you talk about these first being implemented or rolling out slowly ten years ago or so, I gotta believe the technologies gotten even better. I mean, how can they so accurately capture the license plate of a car going 80 miles down the freeway?Lieutenant Michael Shaw:
Yeah, that's way out of my wheelhouse as far as the technology of those certain things work. But yeah, they go through there and I think too it's important to note the only thing that they capture is the actual license plate in the back end of the car. So I know there's been some folks out there that have said it gets your face and all that stuff and that's just not accurate. That's all it does is get a license plate in the back end of the vehicle as it goes by and then after 30 days it flushes out of the system, so it's not even kept by the reader any longer after those 30 days. So we've gone through a lot of work to make sure that these systems work very well, but yet the public is still protected because everybody worries about their privacy. The Supreme Court has already ruled, or the court system's already ruled, that there's no expectation of privacy for your license plate, so that kind of takes that part of it out of there. But we also want to respect others and we want to make sure that we're using them properly and hopefully we'll solve these shootings, we'll recover kids before something bad happens from Amber Alerts and Silver Alerts as well. There's Michigan's population gauges. In age, we have a lot of people that maybe are going through the beginning stages of Alzheimer's or dementia and end up driving around, and these license plate readers also help us locate them as well, so it's an excellent tool to use for a lot of different things.Jeff Cranson:
Well, that's a really good point. I'm glad you underscored that last point, because that is a factor, something we all have to wrestle with, because, you're right, Michigan's population is aging. There's plenty of documentation on that and a whole commission actually looking at that. Please stay tuned. We'll be back with more Talking Michigan Transportation right after this.MDOT Message:
The Michigan Department of Transportation reminds you that when a vehicle collides with another vehicle, person or other object, it is a crash, not an accident. By reducing human error, we can prevent crashes and rebuild Michigan roads safely.Jeff Cranson:
You know, city councils and other government bodies have adapted ordinances and legislation around the country. They've talked about some of these same things. So I think it's really important to underscore, you know, all those points that you made about and dispel that myth that this is about facial recognition, because it's not. Do you see this? You know, rowing in touch with your local connections, the, you know, sheriff's departments and police departments across the state. Do you see this use? You know it's something that's gonna just keep on building.Lieutenant Michael Shaw:
It will across the country talking to different state police agencies, highway patrols, counties, locals yes, so one thing to make sure that we always tell people is there is no facial recognition on license plate readers, because there's no face to recognize. So there would be no sense to put that technology on there. Second, that's very interesting that people don't realize is there's a lot of private entities that are using license plate readers, from casinos to big box stores to neighborhood watch groups that are going to these companies and buying these license plate readers to tear crime in their neighborhood. So not only is it being used in police work, it's also being used by private entities.Jeff Cranson:
Which you know. They have every right to do that on their private property right. So absolutely.Lieutenant Michael Shaw:
There's no crime at all about that and I'm sure they would say if you're unhappy about that, then you know, don't come into our parking lot or whatever. But I don't believe that it's anything to be afraid of as long as police agencies are using them the way they're supposed to and there's some type of punishment that's given to those that are not. It's a great tool to keep people safe here in the state.Jeff Cranson:
So let's talk a little bit about what you're seeing with crashes. I know you've did some interviews recently and I guess the good news is that crash deaths on Michigan roads are down a little bit from this same time last year, but the bad news is that there have been more serious injuries and probably more crashes overall. You know, we thought as people returned to the roads after, you know, after the height of the pandemic, that hopefully that those crash numbers would decrease. But people still seem to be speeding and following too close and I don't even know if seatbelt use has returned to where it was.Lieutenant Michael Shaw:
And that is the saddest part is, I think, the worst part of my job and I remember every one of them, even though I'm not that trooper on the road anymore and more into you know the command level is. There is nothing worse than going to somebody's home to tell them that they lost the loved one, and there's really makes it even worse than that if it was preventable. So we need to really start talking about these crashes. I mean, we're still at 700 right now. Could you imagine if we had 700 gun deaths in Michigan a year, or if we had 700 people that died from overdoses and fentanyl? The media and the public would be at an outrage, right? For some reason, society is accepting the fact that we've lose. You know, seven well, it was in 2022. Over a thousand, over a thousand people we've lost in preventable traffic crash deaths. Preventable it's, they're not accidents, it's not. Oh that you know that would have happened. Somebody or some buddies did something they shouldn't have done behind the wheel which resulted in the death of somebody. And they can all be eliminated if we drive the speed limit, if we open up those following distance. Don't drive distracted. People laugh at me all the time because I talk about that be nice. Be nice to your fellow drivers, and we would be able to prevent a majority of these crashes.Jeff Cranson:
Well, I'm glad always that you put that emphasis on crash over accident, because I think that little thing is a fundamental way of changing the thinking. And you're right, because we accept these road deaths and we would never accept, you know, a plane going down with 700 people. There would be there would be mass outrage and congressional hearings, right? So how is it that we become numb to it?Lieutenant Michael Shaw:
And that's the hardest part about it is, you know, for me and for you and anybody that's in communications or you know talking to the public, there's nothing anybody can tell me and I get the all the time. Is there anything better that you could be doing than pulling people over? As a state trooper? And absolutely there is, but unfortunately I have to do that because why we talk about prevention all the time? It's not working, so there has to be some enforcement that goes along with it. So I get it from a certain reporter all the time in my area why are you guys wasting your time with traffic enforcement when there's more serious crimes out there? Well, that's why. Because we're losing a thousand people in Michigan a year to preventable crashes preventable is the right word.Jeff Cranson:
So you referenced your time on the road and I don't know if we talked about that much before, but give me a little bit of your career trajectory and how it is, after you know, several years with the, the agency, that you maintain your, your passion. I mean I really appreciate how much you care about this and how much you care about public safety and talk about how that's come to be.Lieutenant Michael Shaw:
So I started in 1995 out of the hardest recruit school that we ever had in history, the 112th trooper recruit school. So after that things just got easy after we all graduated there that's what everybody says in their recruit school. I grew up in the Detroit and South Detroit and Southfield area, so I grew up in Metro Detroit. When I graduated from high school I went into the, the army, I went into the military. I spent 11 years in the military. But I wanted, I always wanted to be a state trooper because my grandfather was a state trooper and some say brainwashed or he convinced me that that was the career field that I wanted to go into and I never remember wanting to do anything else in my life other than being a Michigan State trooper. So I started at the Caro post because back then you had to go 100 miles away from your hometown. We've kind of changed that now due to the way that you know a lot of people are coming into the department and second careers and you know their spouses already have a job and they don't want to move 100 miles or 100 miles away from where they're going. So they kind of change that. But I wanted to get back to Detroit, to where I grew up and make a difference in my own community. So I transferred down to the old Northville post right before it became Metro North and I've been in the Metro Detroit ever since. So I've served as a trooper, a death sergeant, assistant post commander and then 20 section commander as well, and then 2013, I was tapped on the shoulder and told that we were going to start a public information program and I had no experience whatsoever and in that role and I kind of just got into it and here I am today. But I think it's important that we have people in state government and in policing that talks to the public and common sense right, and we can all talk about the approximately in the, you know, in this thousand block and you know the perpetrator and all that kind of stuff. I think people want to hear from their police departments, no matter what level it is. They want to know what's going on in their communities and they want somebody that's a straight shooter and it's got me in a little trouble every once in a while, but I think being a straight shooter is the way to do it and I know that we could prevent these traffic crashes if we would just use common sense and personal responsibility, and we have to be aware of the fact that we are responsible for what happens behind the wheel of the car, and that's us, I always say. The person that's caused the problem in that traffic crash only needs to look in the rear view mirror and they would see the person that caused that crash.Jeff Cranson:
Yeah, well said yeah again. I appreciate your passion and your plain spokenness and I think that's important because it's authentic and you talk from the heart when you talk about these things. So thanks, as always, for taking time to do this and help educate the public on, you know, on these technologies that are going to be involved in solving crime and law enforcement, and also what you're doing in terms of safety and trying to deal with, you know, these crazy speeds that have continued and should concern us all, for sure.Lieutenant Michael Shaw:
Absolutely, because that's one thing we're all doing, right is we're driving on these roadways, so it affects us all in one way or another, and I always hear the people. Well, if I drive the speed limit, then people are going to pass me, or you know, it's like getting run over. Well, if everybody just started doing it, then those that are actually causing the problem, those that have no regard for other people, they're going to stick out like a sore thumb and then we'll be able to deal with them directly. But the thought process of why I have to do 90 because everybody else is doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense.Jeff Cranson:
Yeah, again, well said. Well, thank you, Lieutenant Shaw, I really appreciate it.Lieutenant Michael Shaw:
No problem.Jeff Cranson:
I'd like to thank you once more for tuning in to Talking Michigan Transportation. You can find show notes and more on Apple podcasts or Buzzsprout. I also want to acknowledge the talented people who help make this a reality each week, starting with Randy Debler, who skillfully edits the audio, Jesse Ball, who proofs the content, Courtney Bates, who posts the podcast of various platforms, and Jacke Salinas, who transcribes the audio to make it accessible to all.