LS council subcommittee approves License Plate Reader proposal

rpulley@lsjournal.comJune 21, 2013 

License plate readers, which Lee’s Summit police propose using to help catch car thieves or find abducted children, are closer to getting approval from the City Council, even as the public grows jittery about surveillance.

Recent reports of the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency gathering massive data on U.S. citizens emails and telephone calls have made it a touchy issue, said Councilmember David Mosby, Chairman of the Community and Economic Development Committee.

Still the committee voted 3-1 Wednesday, June 19, to move the program to the full council for more discussion.

It also voted 3-1 to move forward a proposed ordinance allowing homeowners to keep up to 6 hens.

The committee compromised on limits it suggested for Police Chief Joe Piccinini’s plans for the license plate reader program.

It offered three conditions:

• Data won’t be stored; the system will only be used for “point in time” alerts

• An annual audit of the program will go to the Public Safety Advisory Board for citizen oversight

• The department is to advise the council if it expands the program

Mosby said most of the resident’s concerns he’d heard is about data storage. He proposed dropping the department’s plan to store the date 30 days on a vendor’s server.

Mosby said there were worries about misuse of the data and hackers.

“Originally I was asking for the moon, I figured the more data we could store, the better chance we would have of catching criminals,” said Police Chief Joe Piccinini.

After hearing from the public and council members, he proposed the shorter storage period to 30 days.

The department can dictate to the vendor how long to store data before deleting it.

Only authorized law enforcement officers could access the data. A log of data requests is kept and the records are closed to the public, not available to private citizens, unless a judge issues a court order.

Piccinini said the data is encrypted and even if the system were hacked, the only information the hackers would get is a visual picture of the license plate.

Names and addresses of the vehicle’s owner are not attached to data stored by the vendor, he said.

How the license plate readers work, a specially equipped patrol car has a computer system with cameras taking photographs of license plates of vehicles. The system records the date, time and place, and automatically checks the number against a “hot list” of plate numbers created by Lee’s Summit and other law enforcement agencies.

The list includes plates associated with stolen cars, known drug dealers under investigation, sex offenders and license plates associated with Amber Alerts or others.

The computer alerts the police officer driving the car once there’s a match.

The officer then can search other data systems to get more information about the vehicle.

Piccinini said its use is no different from what a police officer can do now, taking numbers with a pencil and paper. It is, however, many, many times faster. The system can record and search thousands of plates daily.

Piccinini said that during a six-month trial that’s been underway, the department used stored data for two drug investigations and getting a lead in a burglary.

In the burglary, a witness got a partial license plate number and a vehicle description, which the department compared with recordings to get a lead.

Councilmember Derek Holland asked whether the police could use the system with out council authorization.

Deputy City Attorney John Mautino said the Police Department could use the program without council approval, because it comes under authority of the City Manager’s as supervisor of the department according to the City Charter. Money for the program is coming from property forfeiture funds the department gets from drug cases.

However, City Manager Steve Arbo and Piccinini said the department would not use the system without support from the council. They had brought forward the idea for council discussion. The committee has been discussing the project with Piccinini and asking questions for serveral meetings.

Holland said that while he originally opposed license plate readers, his concerns had softened as the police department refines its plan and policy for the project.

He’s still alarmed by the FBI’s use of drones and other federal agencies spying.

“I am chilled to the bone by what is going on in this country,” Holland said. “Privacy rights, that we have taken for granted, are being taken away.”

Councilmember Allan Gray said he was OK with storing the data 30 days, but agreed to Mosby’s recommendation to move the issue out of committee.

Councilmember Rob Binney, who voted no, said that without some data storage the program’s usefulness is blunt.

“We’ve given the dog the ability to bite, but it has no teeth now,” Binney said.

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