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License Plate Reader Back on Selectmen's Radar

Already in use by departments in numerous other Fairfield County towns, including Darien, Fairfield, Wilton and Greenwich, the readers enable patrol officers to digitally "scan" the license plates of other cars on the road in "real t

The New Canaan Board of Selectmen on Tuesday discussed a request from the police department for $20,000 for a license plate reader — a capital item cut from last year's town budget.

Already in use by departments in numerous other Fairfield County towns, including Darien, Fairfield, Wilton and Greenwich, the readers enable patrol officers to digitally "scan" the license plates of other cars on the road in "real time," as the police car is moving.

"Basically it will scan the license plate of every car that passes by [the squad car], and then stores that information in a database, until needed," said New Canaan Police Captain David Bender, who briefed the board on the request, adding that the reader also makes use of GPS to record a car's location.

Bender said the license plate readers are effective in helping patrol officers enforce a wide variety of motor vehicle violations — as well as in tracking down criminals.

"It will flag an expired registration, it will flag a vehicle that has outstanding parking tickets, it will flag vehicles registered to people who are wanted on warrant…," he said, adding that the information associated with the plate "will pop up immediately for the officer to see — and they can then decide whether to pursue the vehicle."

Bender said the license plate reader will be particularly valuable when conducting investigations into crimes such as burglaries.

"The reason it is valuable to us is, for example, the recent home invasions and burglaries that we recently had here… " he said. "Many times as officers are racing to the scene, the perpetrators are racing away from the scene, and they go right by the officers — but they're not aware of it because they don't know what kind of vehicle they are in."

"Not that they could stop them at the time — but they would have their plate on record," Bender added.

Bender said in the event a serious crime, such as a home invasion, has been committed in town, investigators could use the database to see if any vehicles belonging to persons with past criminal records were in the area at the time.

Each reader consists of two special cameras which are mounted on the squad car, as well as optical reader software that allows for the characters on a plate to be "read" from the image. The $20,000 also includes an annual fee to access to the regional database. Bender said the town would use equipment and service provided through Brewster NY-based ELSAG North America.

"Everybody in the area we've spoken to says [the license plate readers] work flawlessly and they are a very valuable tool," Bender said.

The readers, however, have been a source of controversy: Last year the ACLU and other civil liberties groups introduced legislation banning their use, claiming that the gathering and storage of the data constitutes a violation of privacy rights. Currently state and local police are allowed to keep the data indefinitely — however some groups are pushing to put a limit on how long it can be stored, for privacy reasons, which would have to be enacted at the state level.

Selectwoman Beth Jones said she was concerned that the data could be the subject of Freedom of Information requests and that it could end up being used for purposes not related to criminal investigations.

"I know about how FOI can get out of control…" Jones said, adding that she feared scenarios such as a spouse trying to keep tabs on another spouse during a divorce… "I would want some kind of an assurance that we would not be dealing with that kind of stuff."

Bender said there was one high profile FOI request up in Hartford for the data, "but all that is released was the plate numbers and locations…" He said it is still a gray area whether the data should accessible via an FOI request. He added that Chief of Police Edward Nadriczny is in favor of a retention period but doesn't want New Canaan to attempt to set a precedent with regard to local control over data retention.

Selectman Nick Williams said in his view the benefits of having the readers outweigh the potential privacy risks. He said since other towns feel comfortable about using the technology, "we can too."

Williams predicted the legislature will enact a retention policy in the near future, based on pressure from the ACLU and civil liberties groups. He said he supports a 14 day retention policy.

Williams pointed out that license plate readers recently helped Darien police catch a burglary suspect.

"We need to roll the dice a little bit on the privacy," Williams said. "This is a technology that is being used throughout the country — and if it is effective in getting the bad guys, I say we use it."

First Selectman Robert Mallozzi questioned whether it would be possible for the town to set its own retention limit on the data, however both Bender and Williams said it would probably not be possible to enact a retention policy and still participate in the regional database (which would have its own policy). The board members agreed they needed a definitive answer to the question and further said they would be petitioning state Sen. Lawrence Cafero and newly-elected state Rep. Tom O'Dea to amend the law and enact a retention period.

Earlier in the meeting, Mallozzi said he was under the impression that the $20,000 equipped all the department's squad cars with readers. After Bender clarified that it was only for one reader, Mallozzi questioned whether one would be effective enough.

"Odds are the one reader won't be enough, in terms of… we've got a one in five chance that a [squad] car that is on the way to the scene would pass [a perpetrator's car]…", Mallozzi said.

Bender admitted there are limitations on the readers' effectiveness, with regard to the fact that they can only scan plates that are in close proximity to the squad car.

"There's nothing that says we couldn't consider more than one of these if deemed appropriate," Mallozzi said, adding that the board will discuss the request for special appropriation further before sending it on to the Board of Finance and Town Council for approval. "It might behoove us to talk about more than one…"

S Dogood December 05, 2012 at 01:43 PM
I am concerned about the capturing of this information and the retention of the data. It feels more like big brother is watching. It is not clear what data is stored in the database, is it license plate, state, location, owner, home address, phone number, driver license number of the owner, SSN of the owner? What process in place is there to ensure the accuracy of the information? The reader is only good in "close proximity" and it is at the edge of the proximity and license plate is slightly obscured, a "bad" read is done. How will the database base know? Who has liability of the database is hacked and its contents are made available? If I incure a loss due to the database being hacked, is the town liable? Is the state?
heavens sake December 05, 2012 at 02:20 PM
Next technological innovation will be to automatically scan to detect if you are using a cell phone, texting, wearing a seatbelt, wearing prescribed eyeglasses or engaged in some other inappropriate behavior. Talk about Big Brother or Big Sister. Why not just appropriate funds for a fleet of Drone Aircraft and administer immediate punishment as well.
Andy Kerchoff December 05, 2012 at 03:27 PM
Drones in American skies are coming. Reference this article that was on Wired.com yesterday: http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/12/california-drones/ It starts now in CA! -AK
TP December 05, 2012 at 03:51 PM
99.999 percent of the use of this evil device will be to generate revenue from lapsed registrations, mostly caused by lack of payment or failure to pass an emissions test, or failure to pay for a late emissions test. Lets not kid ourselves that this device on this car will solve house invasions - why should we spend our tax money to further harrass our town's drivers and do nothing more than generate fines for the state. Since the police can't give good answers to the obvious questions of how the data will be used, stored and deleted, lets not spend another dime.
heavens sake December 05, 2012 at 04:43 PM
answer to problem is rather easy without large taxpayer investment. Simply double or triple fines and post signs at major routes entering town that fines are so and so for specific infractions including emissions, texting, use of cell phones etc. Posting 20-30 signs by Highway Dept. no big deal. Of course, penalty revenues for Town and State would be less which is why our election officials will not consider simple solution.
Phil Restifo December 06, 2012 at 01:07 AM
Bad idea! I'm with the ACLU on this one. Capital request denied.
NCHammer December 06, 2012 at 01:36 AM
"Roll the dice on privacy" Mr. Williams???? Wow. So other towns use it "we can too"? Nice group think. We are not "other" towns. No gambling with the privacy of those who elected you to be insightful Mr. Williams. Beth Jones is sensible.
mary parker December 06, 2012 at 06:06 AM
No offence to most of the police officers performing their duties but, we still have the problem of people running red lights in town or going through stop signs or the use of cell phones while driving that haven't been addressed yet, which to me is more important for the police to get a handle on before introducing another priority that cost $20,000.00. And just for one vehicle. Is that vehicle going to be operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? If they get the red light runners and cell phone users first then I'd say ok but they haven't stopped that yet.
NCHammer December 06, 2012 at 06:21 AM
to your wise point phil. Is this next below? http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_22122536 from the article: ...Surveillance and intelligence gathering amount to "spying," ACLU attorney Linda Lye said ...
Tom December 06, 2012 at 01:45 PM
spend spend spend spend spend
James December 06, 2012 at 08:48 PM
We went through this last year. Roger Williams on the TC stood up and called this for what it is - an invasion of privacy. Let's hope he can stop it again. We don't need "big brother' trolling the streets looking for expired tags or overdue parking tickets. Nick Williams should follow the lead of the other Williams.
Judge Crater December 07, 2012 at 12:30 AM
This Court wishes to thank Mary Parker for her keen observations. There are entirely too many drivers doing 50 mph down Main Street, blasting through yellow and red lights, regarding stop signs as holiday decorations and Driving While Intalksicated on their handheld cell phones. To be stopped by police because a souped up grocery price reader says there is an outstanding warrant, with the possibility of being ordered to lie prostrate on the ground and under gunpoint is too much for This Court to sanction. Therefore, This Court enjoins the Board of Selectmen from spending the citizens' money on this toy even though all the other kids have one.
NCHammer December 07, 2012 at 03:22 AM
LOL...souped up grocery price reader....priceless description!!!!
TP December 07, 2012 at 03:16 PM
So let me get this straight: IF there is a burglary or home invasion (rare enough thank goodness), and IF the patrol car with the grocery scanner is dispatched, and IF the bad guys happen to drive past (e.g. they pass each other on the same road at the same time), and IF they get away and IF the officer remembers that the bad guys may have passed, and IF they have the time and resources to check the tapes, and IF they happen to have the time and resources to go through the entire file of passed cars during the dispatch, and IF they have the time and resources to investigate every car and every driver and passenger, then MAYBE the crime will be solved ! Wow !!! Our government just doesn't get it. They want to treat us like idiots, spend our money and then violate our privacy rights. Give us a break !
Greenhill December 07, 2012 at 05:30 PM
The scanners are easy to defeat using a simple plastic shield over any license plate that prohibits a reading. Costs $39 on-line, is perfectly legal and it works well. Many bad guys know this so forget the $20,000 scanner and be grateful for the canine officer.
Doug December 07, 2012 at 07:53 PM
Why the concern over a $20,000 item? Why is no one talking about the Taj Town Hall? $14 million of construction coming and there have been no meetings asking for town input. When will this start being discussed?
Esprit de Corps December 07, 2012 at 08:48 PM
Perhaps you are new. First the plans are made. Then the money is allocated. Then the vendors are chosen. Then contracts are signed. Then you get an audience before the appropriate body. This is the way. My apologies.
J Bauer December 07, 2012 at 08:58 PM
Well said - this is the truth of the matter. The 0.0000001% chance that this device somehow helps to capture a perp driving away from the scene of a crime does not justify the cost. $20k for one squad car multipled by ??? 10 cars enough? $200k? And, as for Mr. Williams... just because the dimwits in other towns think this is a great idea, does not mean that it is. At age 9 what did Mr Williams do when little johnny decided to jump off the bridge into the water below? "Go ahead, Nicky, jump!!"
J Bauer December 07, 2012 at 09:01 PM
The more I learn about the decision making process that exists with our local politicians, the more I am concerned. Sharp suits, nice smiles and fun guys to chat with over a beer do not make for good pre-requisities when holding public office.
NCHammer December 07, 2012 at 10:47 PM
So, basically, the PD will "virtually" pull-over every citizen who drives by and search their papers WITHOUT cause. "It will flag an expired registration, it will flag a vehicle that has outstanding parking tickets, it will flag vehicles registered to people who are wanted on warrant…," he said, adding that the information associated with the plate "will pop up IMMEDIATELY for the officer to see — and they can then decide whether to pursue the vehicle." This "virtual" stop and search movement has its sights squarely on NC citizens.
Doug December 11, 2012 at 12:16 AM
For almost any project in New Canaan, there would be public discussions or focus groups to decide what the town would want in a new town hall. That is how it worked with all of the schools and even a new sidewalk. Do we really need a gigantic auditorium? Do we need all town use offices pulled back to Main Street from Irwin. It just seems like this project has a small group of people running it and there is not much transparency. We are already paying rent for the displaced town hall offices, we are expecting the project to start in July, the design is not complete and we have no idea if we are close to the $14 million budget. Feels like it is being rushed. Why is no one concerned about this?
S Tadik December 11, 2012 at 01:07 AM
Town Mahal Here are some reasons which may be 100% correct or not and there may be others. There will be some people who will question the legitimacy of your question. Because there is a segment of citizens who feel entitled to all the goodies they want no matter what the cost now or in the future. Because common-sense priorities get scrambled in the ego trips. Why has Town Hall suffered from inadequate handicapped access for so long and a faulty heating system justifies a new edifice? Because there are large segments of the citizenry who are apathetic to civic affairs and when problems come up in their own lives, they throw money at the problem until it goes away. Because many people are disillusioned when they saw how the previous First Selectman and the Current Chair of Town Council deliberately concealed information about the Lakeside Bridge cost fiasco so that the pet sidewalk project could get done. Because of the large-corporation influence. These organizations are run by command and control and habitual behavior at work carries over after work. Because the current First Selectman is operating under a "my way or the highway" approach.
Doug December 12, 2012 at 09:23 PM
I like that phrase...Town Majal. Here are a few key points on the Town Hall to me. It needs to be handicap accessible and we need a new heating system...no argument. In fact, no argument that we need a major renovation and possibly addition. This is a building that we know will be around for the next 100 years...our current responsibility is probably to make it work for the next 25+ years. Therefore, lets get it right. There is such a rush to get construction started in July and to hit the $14MM budget. The priority should be to get the design perfect (or as perfect as it can be) and then get a good idea of the budget. Maybe with good planning, you could save money from the $14MM being thrown out there. Maybe it is actually $16MM, but you could save money by moving something else to the new Town Majal. It would be really wrong to rush this, spend $14MM on it and then say that it wasn't done right...and then maybe you have to go back and spend more money or more likely...it doesn't work well for the next 50 years. It just feels rushed and it feels like the priority is to get something/anything done instead of making sure that it is done well.
Glen K Dunbar December 12, 2012 at 10:46 PM
I have nothing to hide really. But the idea is unsettling
S Tadik December 12, 2012 at 10:52 PM
You are looking for logical design in a town which operates on political design. You would need to turn things upside down to overcome this culture and it would require a cadre of well-heeled dedicated change agents to pull that one off. The modus operandi is to cut corners to meet timelines and cut costs. There may be those who disagree with this view but that's the way it seems to me.

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