a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Takoma Park police license plate scanner policy: no image storage

Posted by Thomas Nephew on April 18th, 2009

The Takoma Park Police Department has issued draft guidelines for the proposed license plate scanner system that are the next best thing to no scanner at all (still my preference): the default policy will be no storage of “scan files” once a given operator’s shift is over.  From the draft:

06 Limitations on Usage:
A. Only officers or employees certified by a Command level officer will be permitted to access the Extract Downloads, develop hot lists, or operate the device. Any such operator will be required to possess authorization to access NCIC and MVA files via the MILES system. Security of the extract downloads will be consistent with other directives, rules, regulations, laws and procedures applying to the use of information from those databases, and will be the responsibility of the operator.

B. Scanning Missions will not last any longer than the shift duration of the operator. If a successive officer takes over use of the vehicle in which the ALPR Scanner is mounted, or otherwise takes over use of the device, they will initiate a new scanning mission after development of a new hot list from the latest extract downloads.

C. Scan Files developed during the mission will be deleted from the device upon completion of the operators shift.

D. It will be a violation of this policy and procedure to download any scan file, without the expressed authorization of the Chief of Police.[…]

(Emphasis added.)  The draft policy was discussed at Monday’s Takoma Park City Council meeting (video link).  Chief Ricucci had courteously sent me a copy of the draft policy a few days earlier, and I was able to propose a few suggestions to strengthen the policy during the general public comment period (and by e-mail).

Chief among these was that the police notify the City Council when the chief of police “expressly authorized” exceptions to this and other default policies (having to do with database lists provided to the scanner, and sharing data with other agencies.)  I was pleased that councilmember Josh Wright and other councilmembers took up some of these suggestions, and that police officials attending the meeting (including Chief Ricucci and Captain Coursey, who attended the forum) appeared to have no problem with them.

I remain skeptical of the need for this system and question the civic wisdom of giving such potentially sweeping surveillance power to law enforcement.  But this outcome, if it holds, is the next best thing to no scanner system at all: one that forgets what it saw at the end of the day.  I don’t like the relatively unencumbered wiggle room for downloading scan files on authorization of the chief of police, but a reporting requirement would at least give people a chance to know that was happening so they could come to a judgment about that.

I may have more to say after reviewing the video of the meeting; it isn’t crystal clear to me what will happen next.  While I’m fairly sure there will be a revised draft policy incorporating some of the suggestions made during the work session, I’m less sure whether that will lead to an immediate vote on the purchase.  It appears that the grant money for the purpose must be collected soon, so that Council — by and large, more sympathetic to the system than I am — feels an incentive to move quickly.

For now, I guess I’ll call this a small win… tempered with regret that we’re choosing to surveille ourselves this way.  But I also appreciate that my concerns were listened to, both by the police and by the City Council.

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