License Plate Reader Gets Public Hearing

Board of Selectmen to hold public hearing on July 12 about the use of Automated License Plate Reader.

Police Chief Daniel O'Leary began a discussion last week about the use of an , or ALPR system. The State has offered Brookline a $20,460 grant to install an ALPR system in a Brookline police cruiser and begin using the technology. During this week's Selectmen's meeting, the Board announced that a public hearing on the technology will be held on July 12.

ALPR (sometimes called ANPR, for "number plate") is a system composed of a camera and a computer unit. The camera is installed in a police vehicle, and takes a photograph of license plates on parked and moving cars, then translates the numbers on the plate into a text format it can read and compares it to a "hot list." The list may have vehicles on the tow list, or AMBER Alert vehicles, wanted or stolen cars, or any number of other uses.

Chief O'Leary noted that, for an additional software purchase, ALPR could be used to enforce two-hour parking limits in problem areas in North Brookline.

Listed vehicles set off an alarm in the cruiser to alert the officer of a hit. During both conversations, O'Leary stressed that the ALPR hits are not enough to warrant a pull-over or arrest. The operator must independently confirm the hit. 

At last week's meeting, O'Leary referenced the ACLU's concerns about the technology. At tonight's meeting, a representative of the Mass ACLU, Cade Crawford, gave her thoughts on the technology.

"I don’t disagree with most of what the Chief said. I believe it can be implemented without too much invasion of privacy." Crawford added that the key issue is a responsible data policy, and that the State does not currently have a data policy.

Precinct 6 Town Meeting Member Clint Richmond warned against "being tantalized with free security and surveillance bling--if you want to call it that."

He went on to explain how powerful the system actually is, capable of recording 1800 license plates a minute. Describing himself as a technology professional, Richmond described ALPR as "extremely powerful."

“I don’t know if the policy could ever be strong enough to counter-balance the capabilities of the system. It’s a very sophisticated system." Richmond went on, “I’m a little concerned about a faith-based approach to managing something like this.”

The grant was not presented on its own, even last week it included a draft of a data policy. A policy which could pave the way for similar policies in other communities with an ALPR system. This policy includes a maximum length of data retention, and the requirement for independent verification on any ALPR hits.

"A lot of communties we’d normally turn to for examples in policy have implemented [ALPR] without the policies," Selectman Jesse Mermell explained, referencing Boston and Newton. 

"The Chief is drafting a policy which, could be implemented by other communities--if we accept it." Selectman Chair Betsy DeWitt added, "He’s being looked to as an example." 

At last week's meeting, there was a looming deadline--originally O'Leary said the State needed an answer by next week. Since then, the Board, Town Counsel and the Police Department have done more research. They have learned more about policies, and that the deadline is not next week, meaning the Board can hold a public hearing on the subject of ALPR and the corresponding policies. 

The $20,000 grant comes from State funds, meaning that the Town does not have to appropriate extra cash for the technology, if they really want it. 

"If surveillance proponents weren’t able to cynically characterize the technology as free--after all, we pay." Frank Farlow, Town Meeting Member from Precinct 4 commented, "it seems like Town Meeting would be able to allocate the funds differently."

Farlow suggested schools as an alternative. The issue he felt was that this money comes with a lot of conditions. For example, the State would require a length of data retention twice as long as the Selectmen might have chosen otherwise. Another is co-operation with other State or Federal agencies, as in sharing that information.

O'Leary did say he would have to approve any shared information.

"Once this information leaves Brookline," Crawford added, "you lose control of that information."

With July 12 as a date for the upcoming public hearing, more comments and concerns will be presented as the final data policy gets hashed out. 

[Correction 2:08 p.m. ACLU representative's name is Cade Crawford, not Katy]

David Matson June 22, 2011 at 07:13 PM
It is satisfying to see the city taking the privacy concerns seriously. More typically, they are glossed over or completely ignored, so kudos to the town meeting members. http://www.mymassachusettsdefenselawyer.com/police-surveillance-brookline-license-plate-scanners/


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