WALLINGFORD — The chief of police has requested a bid waiver to purchase an automatic license plate reader, a device that has drawn criticism from civil liberty advocates.
The town council is slated to consider the request tonight.
Police Chief William Wright said Monday the device, which would have front- and rear-mounted cameras that scan and photograph vehicle license plates, is a tool police can utilize to identify stolen vehicles, suspended registrations and persons of interest by checking scans against a “hot list” of plates.
Such a device could help address car burglaries, Wright said.
“It’s another set of eyes in our vehicle that will assist our patrol division,” Wright said.
Wright said he chose to request a bid waiver because he wants to use the state police’s servers to run the town’s license plate reader.
“We want to leverage the fact that their database would save us several thousands of dollars,” he said, versus buying and maintaining a local server.
The state police use GeneTec Auto-Vu systems, purchased and implemented through a company called SecureWatch 24.
SecureWatch 24 gave a price quote of $17,000 for purchase and installation of the license plate reader system.
The police are looking to purchase one device and mount it on an SUV cruiser.
The purchase would be funded through a $10,000 state Justice Assistance Grant and part of a $15,000 donation from Nucor Steel.
“This grant has a very short window and it only came to our attention in the last few months,” Wright said. “Could I put it into our budget next year and go about it through the normal course of business? Yes. But this opportunity presented itself.”
Wallingford would be the first municipality to be hooked up to the state system, said Connecticut State Police Lt. Marc Petruzzi on Monday.
Petruzzi said that once a day, a list of plates from vehicles that are stolen, have suspended registration or are connected to an investigation is uploaded onto the state system from the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
If a match is made from a scan, the officer or trooper can do a live check through COLLECT, the state law enforcement database, and NCIC, the federal one for out-of-state plates, to see it the hit is still valid.
If it is, then a motor vehicle stop would be made, Petruzzi said.
As the license plate reader takes data in, it’s also pushing data out.
The device records the plate’s date, time and location through the scan, even if the plate isn’t on the hot list.
Petruzzi said the data is purged every 90 days, unless there’s been a search on the plate, and access is for law enforcement only.
While the device may make the police’s job easier, the American Civil Liberties Union has challenged the use of license plate readers based on privacy concerns surrounding the storage of information on vehicles not suspected of a traffic violation or crime.
“There are a host of issues that flow through use of these systems,” said David McGuire, ACLU of Connecticut executive director, on Monday. “There are things that need to be thought through, and weighted pros and cons of a system like this.”
McGuire said connecting to the DMV database is standard and what the device is “most suited for.”
“For that use, the data need not be retained for very long,” he said. “What we see is that (police) departments use those to create a vast trove of location data on innocent people that go through that municipality, and lately departments are allowing the federal government to have access to their scans.”
Lt. Anthony DeMaio, head of the police traffic division, said local officers will “have a full operating procedure on it, and it will be used accordingly.”
“I think it can do no harm,” DeMaio added. “It would only help us in our efforts.”
DeMaio was the incident commander at the Oakdale Theatre shooting on Dec. 30, 2016.
Two men died and two others were injured during the shooting, which happened outside after a concert by rapper Meek Mill.
Wright said in that hectic situation, the license plate reader would have a “legitimate use.”
“We detailed somebody as quickly as we could to stand by the exits, as the traffic was bailing out of there,” Wright said, “to capture the license plates of people that were leaving, because we didn’t know what we had. Active crime scene, shots fired, and it was important that that work get done.”
McGuire said part of balance that can be struck is thoughtfully crafted local policy “with meaningful limits to protect people’s rights” before the acquisition of the device.
“There’s been significant mission creep when police have had to deal with a perceived public safety crisis,” he said. “Once the tech is out, it’s very difficult to put that genie back in the bottle.”