Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Spokane City Council to discuss police surveillance tonight amid renewed privacy concerns

Posted By on Wed, Aug 14, 2013 at 10:56 AM

Amid concerns from the ACLU and privacy advocates, the Spokane City Council will consider an ordinance tonight on how local police can acquire and deploy new surveillance technology including drones and other data collection devices. 

While local police have not requested drones, the Spokane Police Department has worked toward installing security cameras downtown and moved to expand its use of automated license plate readers.  

The ACLU released a critical report in July questioning the use of plate readers, which scan and photograph thousands of license plates a day. All plates, times, locations and photos — whether flagged as suspicious or not — get logged into massive databases that can be searched later. We wrote last month about how local departments use the readers

Local law enforcement agencies have been quick to champion the recent successes of the plate readers in recovering stolen vehicles, solving crimes and apprehending wanted suspects. 

The Spokane Police Department last week announced the arrest of 22-year-old Steven M. Anderson for alleged possession of a stolen vehicle. SPD officials credit plate readers with another seven arrests in recent months for other vehicle theft charges.

Police officials say Anderson passed a patrol car equipped with a vehicle-mounted plate reader Aug. 8. The plate reader flagged the vehicle as stolen and officers stopped the vehicle. Anderson allegedly fled on foot, but was quickly arrested.

"This example demonstrates the efficiency of [plate readers] used by SPD to identify and recover stolen vehicles and ultimately arrest vehicle thieves," a news release stated.

Spokane police say the plate readers have helped recover at least 30 stolen vehicles in the past three months. Police records from previous months show that the department's readers likely scanned and recorded well over 100,000 plates to find those 30 stolen vehicles.

The Coeur d'Alene Police Department also credited their local license plate recognition system with the safe recovery of a missing 14-year-old Stevens County girl. A plate reader spotted the vehicle she was traveling I-90 near Post Falls. Police arrested the 24-year-old driver on multiple charges. 

Spokane Council President Ben Stuckart initially proposed an ordinance to limit new surveillance equipment and clarify legitimate uses. The ACLU wrote a letter asking officials to strengthen the ordinance to cover existing technology and other concerns. 

After receiving feedback from the ACLU and citizens, Stuckart reportedly tried to revise the ordinance, but still plans to move forward with the original ordinance at tonight's meeting at City Hall. 

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