ELSAG ALPR Helps Waterford, CT Police With
License plate scanner 'a great tool' for Waterford police
By Jeffrey A. Johnson
Publication: The Day
Published 03/26/2012 12:00 AM
Updated 03/25/2012 11:34 PM
Waterford - The town police department worked a tip nearly three years ago that a large amount of drugs was to be delivered to a person in town.
Police officers knew where the person lived. The question was: When would the drugs be delivered?
The department sent to one of its patrol cars the license plate number of the person who would accept the delivery.
The car, equipped with a license plate recognition system, uses cameras mounted on its hood to scan license plates of passing motorists. The scanned images then go to an on-board computer that runs the plates through a database filled with vehicles that have expired registrations, are stolen or - in this case - wanted in connection with a crime.
In the drug case, the patrol car got a hit for the wanted vehicle. That allowed the department and the Statewide Narcotics Task Force to intercept the drug delivery. Police seized 50 pounds of marijuana and arrested two men.
"It's been a great tool since. We've had some great cases," Police Chief Murray Pendleton said. "This was like a dream come true. We talked about this 25 years ago - having the capability to go out there and recognize certain things."
The license plate recognition system has recently made headlines statewide after several news outlets reported last month that 10 police departments in the central part of the state pooled surveillance data to create a database with more than 3.1 million records.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut has argued that police holding scanned license plate data for long periods of time results in an invasion of privacy.
David McGuire, the staff attorney for the ACLU, said the ACLU is working to introduce legislation in the state that would allow police to keep scanned license plate data for only 14 days.
McGuire said the proposed legislation, similar to that enacted in Maine and New Hampshire, would allow police to keep data longer if it was pertinent to a criminal investigation.
"When you have months or years in the system, that's when it becomes invasive. It's very indicative of people's habits," he said. "Whether they go to church or an AA meeting, once you have this data amassed in a large number, it's easy to find out what (people) do."
The Waterford Police Department has one patrol car in its 20-vehicle fleet equipped with the license plate recognition system. The system cost nearly $17,000 and was paid for by a federal Justice Assistance Grant.
The onboard computer holds license plate scans for 30 days and a computer server at the police station keeps data for one year, Lt. Brett Mahoney said.
Each day the department receives emails from the state Department of Motor Vehicles with a list of license plates with expired registrations, plates canceled for lack of insurance and other suspensions or expirations, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation about vehicles wanted in connection with wanted and missing persons and even terrorist threats.
The plate numbers are added to a database.
Mahoney said he's heard the argument that the license plate recognition system leads to racial profiling. He said this was a misconception because the system is "blind" - it is designed only to read license plates, which it can do at speeds as high as 120 mph.
After the system comes up with a hit, officers also must then confirm the plate and the infraction or crime listed for the vehicle.
"It's a piece of hardware and software that we utilize. It's up to the police officer to decipher the piece of information that is given and make the correct call," Mahoney said. "It's a tool just like all of the stuff on a cop's gun belt. You're not going to take the human element out of it."
Outside of regular patrol, Pendleton said, the information stored in the database would only be helpful if an initial lead already existed in a case.
"Quite frankly, unless we're looking for a kidnapper or a bank robber and we had a partial description of the (plate), all of that information stored within the computers involved is totally useless," Pendleton said. "It's just not that kind of technology."
'A legitimate technology'
Mahoney said that he was unaware of another municipal police department in the region that is using the license plate recognition system.
He said the car equipped with the technology has become a sought-after vehicle in the department because it helps in making arrests - for suspended licenses, for example - that are often difficult for officers to uncover unless they have already pulled the driver over.
The system has also helped in other instances. In a credit card fraud scheme, Mahoney said police used the technology to disprove a suspect's assertion that he was out of state when credit card charges were made at a certain location.
McGuire, the staff attorney for the ACLU, does not dispute the need for the technology. He said the ACLU wants limits defined before more departments start using the system.
"It's a legitimate technology. It's something the police need to check for valid registrations and stolen plates," McGuire said. "We want them to use this technology, we just need it to be safeguarded."