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Town council rejects retaining license plate data

Posted on Thursday, May 29, 2014 at 10:53 am

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Town council rejected a proposal last week to retain citizens’ license plate data for a 24-hour window, citing worries that the “Center of the Universe” could begin to resemble an Orwellian police surveillance state.

“I’m one of those who is very uncomfortable with what some would call the ‘rise of the surveillance state,’” said Vice mayor George Spagna. “We’ve all seen the headlines, we’ve all seen the stories about warrantless collection of data, warrantless intrusion into data systems, and I’m at the very least uncomfortable with the notion of the Town of Ashland getting into retaining information of any kind about any citizen without a warrant.”

The Ashland Police Department secured two license plate reader (LPR) systems through a grant awarded by the attorney general’s office last December. The devices have garnered criticism that police are essentially recording and retaining data on private citizens without just cause, though they are intended to track down wanted fugitives, individuals on terrorist watch lists, missing persons or stolen vehicles.

The Virginia State Police currently maintain data for a 24-hour window, according to Ashland Police Chief Doug Goodman. Though town council sided with a policy that would purge the data immediately after it is recorded if a vehicle is not flagged in a law enforcement database called a “hot list,” Goodman said maintaining data has its benefits.

For example, it could help police track down criminal suspects after the fact. If a business is robbed overnight, Goodman said the department could be able to pull license plate data the next morning, which would aid in the investigation.

But privacy concerns won the day.

“I echo [Spagna’s] position,” said Councilman Edward “Ned” Henson III. “It seems like our own little miniature NSA operation if we retain the data.”

The license plate readers are just one purchase made possible by the $152,000 grant, generated from monies seized through a large criminal investigation last year.

In making a number of one-time buys, Goodman said he pulled together the department’s five-year plan and, looking forward, picked out several items that hadn’t been funded or that may be needed in the future.

Sgt. Scott Menzies, has managed the grant program for the department and went over the recent buys for town council. They include an electronic card system to access the station and several interior doors, computer software that will be used for accident reconstruction and crime scene analysis and a use-of-force simulator, which features real-life scenarios that an officer might encounter while in the field.

The department also purchased cameras, which will be mounted on the collars of patrol officers. The department settled on the collar-mount model because the higher camera angle allows for greater visibility as opposed to chest-mount devices, which can be obstructed by a steering wheel or an officer’s movements in the field.

“We would use this in traffic stops, just as we would use our in-car cameras now, for suspicious situations, field interviews and anytime an officer feels like it might be important for evidence purposes,” Menzies said.

When an officer returns to the station, they can put the camera on a dock that uploads the video stream to an online cloud-based system that stores the footage for future use in criminal cases.