a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Takoma Park PD license plate scanner: grant application

Posted by Thomas Nephew on February 11th, 2009

At my request, the city sent me a copy of the license plate scanner grant application made by the Takoma Park Police Department.  The application, made to the Maryland Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention (GOCCP), can be seen below.

TPPD license plate recognition scanner grant application (click expansion icon at upper right for better view)

In the following, I make a few comments about the application. While I have criticisms, I don’t want readers to think I’m imputing bad motives or bad faith to the Takoma Park Police Department. The goal of recovering stolen cars is sensible, of course. But as written, the application goes beyond that in some ways, and makes no provision for civil liberties concerns or procedures.

  • On page 3, the application lists varying statements of purpose, goals, and objectives; sometimes stolen cars only, sometimes ancillary crime reduction, sometimes “identifying and apprehending offenders linked with motor vehicles.”  This elastic sense of purpose is probably why the application does not specify which databases scanned license plates will checked against — except vaguely, in one instance.  To wit:
  • On page 4, under “Security Integration Strategy,” the application states that the TPPD pledges to “check against known terrorist threat database information.”Again, which database or databases?   Do they have activists like David Zirin or Max Obuszewski in them?

    Washington-Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area
    (WB HIDTA) “Case Explorer” listing for Max Obuszewski, June 2005.
    Note designation as “terrorist.”
    Via ACLU-MD “MSP Documents” dump, 7/17/08.

    For those unaware of the story, the picture to the right shows how one activist — Max Obuszewski — was designated a terrorist in the Maryland State Police’s deeply misguided spying on peace, anti death penalty, and environmental groups between 2005 and 2006.  This information was forwarded to federal agencies via the “Case Explorer” database system.

    The application goes on to state that “[i]t will be the policy of this agency to share information relating to the location of suspect vehicles and the apprehension of potential suspects with the the appropriate law enforcement agencies in this region…” The presumable main intent is sensible — information about, say, a carjacker with a stolen car from the District or Bethesda would be shared with the appropriate police forces.  But “suspect vehicle” could have just meant a peace activist nun’s car in 2005 and 2006; it might again some day.

  • On page 4, under “Best Practices,” the application basically says that the TPPD will touch base with the Montgomery County Police Department and other area police departments and learn from their troubleshooting.  Assuming this was meant to be about fixing technical glitches and the like, an opportunity to detail best civil liberties practices was missed.  Perhaps Takoma Park can do better?
  • On page 4, under “Sustainability,” and in the budget for the device on pages 5 to 8, the application makes no provision whatever for ongoing ombudsman or judicial procedures if secondary analysis of archived scanned images is desired.  Instead, it simply states, “The effective utilization of the device does not require additional personnel allocations over and above existing staffing levels…” Thus, should the Takoma Park City Council wish to implement such procedures — as at least one council member has said he would like — it will need to budget for them.

Finally, there’s a broader point that has nothing to do with Takoma Park Police Department — the GOCCP application form itself makes no provision for explaining civil liberties impacts of proposed acquisitions or programs, let alone for explaining how such impacts will be mitigated or avoided.

The Takoma Park Police Department had to certify (and quite rightly) in the grant application that it will abide by regulations about lobbying and equal opportunity employment, and that it will report findings of discrimination, fraud, and the like.  But I see no similar provision for reporting civil liberties complaints, probably because the GOCCP isn’t required to collect such information by the state or the federal governments — probably because there is little organized constituency for that, or agreed on definitions and procedures for that.

Maybe that, too, should change.  Maybe the state of Maryland ought to consider and adopt measures like those proposed in the Constitution Project’s “Guidelines for Public Video Surveillance” — and add to them requirements that offices like the GOCCP will require civil liberties impact assessments and plans as they disburse grant monies to agencies and organizations around the state.  Thinking about this kind of thing shouldn’t be up to one blogger.

EDIT, 2/12: First sentence clarified from “I obtained a copy”, which made it sound like I had been sneaky or the city had been reluctant.  I asked, they sent, no drama.

One Response to “Takoma Park PD license plate scanner: grant application”

  1. mick arran Says:

    There is NO WAY to pull back once a program like this is in place, and police services will inevitably find a way to expand its use rather than contract it, as the FBI used the NSLs (which were supposed to be used only against terrorists) to collar drug dealers and embezzlers. It becomes a law enforcement “tool” and they will protect it once it’s there.

    The real problem is the data bases. As you mention, they’re notoriously unreliable and absurdly politicized. This is well-known and even reasonably well-publicized and yet little has been done to clean up the lists.

    Put these problems together and you’ve got a recipe for abuse that is – or ought to be – terrifying.

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