Brookline's Police Department is getting an automated license plate reader (ALPR), and a civilian committee will be watching the watchmen.
The Board of Selectment voted last night, 4 to 1 in favor of the ALPR technology and of the policy Police Chief Daniel O'Leary has been crafting since the discussion began last year. In a separate, unanimous vote, the Board also set the CIMS Camera Oversight Committee in charge of overseeing the use of these readers.
An ALPR system uses three cameras mounted on a police cruiser, which read license plates on passing vehicles and uses optical character recognition to compare that license plate with a "hot list" of vehicles for which police may be looking.
The technology has a number of uses ranging from amber alerts and crime to enforcing restraining orders and serving parking tickets.
Selectmen Chairperson Betsy DeWitt said that when consulting experts, she had learned that the machines have a certain failure rate--they may mis-read the license plate and give a false positive. When this happens, the officer is alerted and confirms the "hit" with dispatch, and if the license plate does not match up, the officer does not act on it.
“Probably a lot of [ALPR work] is boring and wrong," DeWitt added.
Initial concerns about the technology were about the system retaining time and location data for vehicles which are not on the "hot list." Opponents of the system have called it an invasion of privacy despite its public safety possibilities.
Said Selectman Ken Golstein, "I wish we lived in a place where the risk-benefit analysis was against the [CIMS] cameras, and I wish we lived in a place where risk-benefit analysis was against this system."
Goldstein said that the balance between civil liberties and public safety was a tough one in this situation, as with the cameras. He noted that the cameras had proven their worth in several "notable and noteworthy instances."
"This is a further measure in safety that we should keep a close eye on, but I am prepared to support it," he added.
Selectman Jesse Mermell voted against the readers because of concerns about how long ALPR information will retained. She had expressed similar concerns early in the discussion last year, but thanked Chief O'Leary for his work on the policy.
“I'm pleased by the changes," Mermell said, "I still don’t feel scanners are the right fit for Brookline.”
She went on to say that she was less opposed to temporary, mobile cameras, because they are targeted surveillance, whereas the ALPR represents a "slippery slope."
"I believe it’s a situation where civilian oversight is important," Chairperson DeWitt said.
Chief O'Leary took recommendations from Town Meeting Members who spoke at the previous hearing into consideration when adjusting the ALPR policy, including clearer language about non-encounter alerts, permissable uses and auditing reports.
"Non-encounter" alerts are situations when the Brookline Police or another agency may have asked to be informed when a certain car is seen, but that the officer take no action at the time.
The policy also includes strict punishments, including termination, for an officer who uses the ALPR technology for a non-departmental purpose. The Selectmen had expressed concerns about an officer potentially using ALPR information to stalk or harass someone.
The Camera Oversight Committee receives reports every six months about how and why the cameras were used in that time period. Selectman Dick Benka added that each time the cameras are used, the Selectmen recieve notification by e-mail and an explanation.
Brookline initially was offered a grand of over $20,000 from the State 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 State grant.
[Clarification: Selectman Jesse Mermell was not referring to the CIMS cameras, but to mobile, temporary cameras. She remains opposed to the CIMS system at intersections around town. The piece has been updated to clarify this point. 1:15 p.m.]