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…"