Menlo Park considers license plate readers in police cars 

click to enlarge License plate readers, used by police in Arizona and elsewhere, help officers quickly identify vehicles that are stolen or linked to other crimes. - ROSS D. FRANKLIN/2007 AP FILE PHOTO
  • Ross D. Franklin/2007 AP File Photo
  • License plate readers, used by police in Arizona and elsewhere, help officers quickly identify vehicles that are stolen or linked to other crimes.

The City of Menlo Park is considering installing license plate readers on three patrol cars — but not before the City Council approves a privacy policy, according to Mayor Pro Tem Ray Mueller.

At a recent council meeting, Mueller and other council members made it clear to the Police Department that the license plate reader program will only go forward once the city has established a privacy policy that protects its citizens now and in the future, Mueller said.

The City Council's privacy considerations come amid national media attention following an incendiary report from the American Civil Liberties Union pointing out several drawbacks to deploying such tools for law enforcement, including privacy concerns.

"The implementation of automatic license plate readers poses serious privacy and other civil liberties threats," the report noted, going on to detail the potential for privacy violations, institutional abuse and discriminatory targeting.

While the Police Department acknowledges all the concerns, data retention is the most contentious issue.

"The million-dollar question is, 'How long do you store the information?'" said Cmdr. Dave Bertini. Law enforcement best practices suggest that about a year is appropriate, but Bertini said it actually varies widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Mueller has said a 60-day retention period sounds like a more appropriate amount of time to retain records.

"The longer the data is stored, and the more jurisdictions that have access, the easier it is to track people who have done nothing wrong," Mueller said.

But Bertini said people have several misconceptions about police usage of the technology. For example, to search historical records of photographed tags, officers are required to input a personalized login, password and a reason — usually a case number — for the search.

"There will be a way to run reports about who has been looking at license plates, and for what reasons," Bertini said.

Also, the search records themselves would be subject to random spot-audits — especially if there's a complaint.

The Police Department's interest in deploying the license plate readers comes in response to community concerns over an uptick in violent crimes in the Belle Haven neighborhood, Bertini said.

Deploying readers on three patrol cars would cost about $60,000.

License plate readers have been around for quite some time, Bertini said, noting that many years ago the devices required an entire police van for a single plate reader. These days, miniaturization allows the readers to be mounted on patrol cars.

Eventually, Mueller expects to see Menlo Park police using license plate readers, but only after the council approves a privacy policy that clearly outlines how data collected with the system can be used and stored.

"We are still a young country, and all our rights to privacy are still relatively young rights," Mueller said. "It's up to us to protect those rights going forward with new technologies."

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