The Board of Selectmen last night discussed an updated policy surrounding the use of automated license plate readers (ALPR) to technology, and ultimately decided to hold the debate until a later meeting.
Police Chief Daniel O'Leary said that he worked with Town Counsel Patricia Correa to look at the policy first proposed last year, and work with recommendations from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and residents to create a more palatable policy.
"We did an almost complete rewrite," O'Leary explained.
One change O'Leary noted was bringing the data retention policy from the original proposal of 30 days to 14, bringing it in line with the town's traffic camera policy. He said the ALPR data would also be subject to similar annual reviews as the cameras.
When the discussion came to Brookline initially, last year, a stipulation of a federal grant for an ALPR system was that the town would share its data with larger agencies. Because of unanswered questions and concerns about this and data retention, this was one of the reasons the initial grant last year was declined.
He added that a data-sharing policy has been spelled out in a "lengthy" paragraph. In a letter from the ACLU, Privacy Rights Coordinatory Kade Crockford did detail one further suggested change, adding language that would prevent a future Chief of Police from single-handedly altering data-sharing provisions.
The technology would be capable of locating cars with connections to crimes, missing persons, and other cases. The Chief detailed some situations in which the owner of a vehicle on the ALPR's "hot list" (vehicles for which it is searching) may not have an outstanding warrant, but said these would likely include a note not to stop the driver and to inform another officer or agency of the location--likely "Be on the look out" or BOLO situations.
ALPR could also be used to monitor 209A restraining orders, in which a person is required to stay a certain distance from another person and their home, or sex offenders required to stay certain distances from schools. It can also track down vehicles on the town tow list and enforce 2-hour parking limits around town. O'Leary noted that the tow list represents about $480,000 in unpaid parking tickets to the town.
"I think the trade offs between increased parking revenue and privacy is an important one," said Clint Richmond, a Precinct 6 Town Meeting Member.
Richmond pointed out that this discussion could be an "indication that society is changing, and not in a good way." While the current proposal is for one ALPR-equipped police cruiser, he predicts that as the cost for technology goes down, Brookline could put more cruisers on the road.
"Do we want to have the image of our police roving the town and scanning?" Richmond added. "I think it sends the wrong message: it makes people more fearful of Police Department in a way we don’t want to be. We aren’t fearful of our Police Department, and we want to continue that relationship."
Both Richmond and Town Meeting Member Andrew Fischer pointed to the system's ability to record not only the license plate number, but a picture of the vehicle--including occupants and bumper stickers indicating political affiliation--as well as the time, date and location.
"Because we don’t have the creative enough imaginations to imagine horrible uses for this," Fischer said, "it’s important for the Board to assume the worst."
While Fischer agreed with the beneficial uses of tracking, for example, restraining orders using ALPR, he was concerned about government monitoring of people involved with Occupy Boston and similar movements.
Chief O'Leary did say that he has never actually seen a terror watchlist, and that requests from other government agencies only come to Brookline Police if there is a reason to believe a suspect has a connection to the town.
Amy Hummel, Town Meeting Member said "[ALPR] feels very invasive. I'm not sure that the benefit is worth the huge tip in balance to the invasion of privacy, and the relative anonymity in the world."
She encouraged the board to take more time to consider the policy, and perhaps improve the
The discussion first came up last June, when the state offered Brookline an over $20,000 grant to have one of these devices installed. Before accepting the grant, however, the Selectmen held a public hearing on the technology. Among the unanswered questions then, data retention and privacy.
In the end, the town declined the grant. However, they authorized Chief O'Leary to continue developing the policy, or seek an alternative technology--with the possibility of town funding.
Selectman Ken Goldstein took a moment to praise the tone of the discussion, noting that the Chief has not taken to "fire and brimstone" arguments for ALPR technology, and remains aware of civil liberty concerns; while the opponents each spoke of "balance" between beneficial applications of ALPR and its potential risks.
In the ACLU letter, Crockford also praised the town's work, saying, "Brookline has set a wonderful example for the state. I hope you'll continue to ensure that the privacy of your residents and visitors is protected from warrantless government tracking of motorists."
Members of the Board said they would look at the policy, the feedback from the ACLU, and some suggestions made by Town Meeting Member Frank Farlow during the discussion last night. The policy will be revised and voted on at a later Board of Selectmen meeting.