Police chief addresses automatic license plate readers

By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

After several residents questioned police use of automatic license plate readers at Town Meeting, Williston Police Chief Todd Shepard sent a memo to Town Manager Rick McGuire to clarify the Williston Police Department’s use of the devices.

A license plate reader mounted in a police cruiser automatically captures hundreds of images of license plates per day. The images are compared with a database of FBI lists of wanted or missing people and stolen vehicles, as well as Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles alerts regarding suspended licenses and registrations.

Shepard said he did not have correct information at Town Meeting and told residents that photos of license plates taken by the readers are not retained. In the memo, sent the following day, Shepard clarified that the images are stored for four years by the Vermont Department of Public Safety, accessible through the State of Vermont Information and Analysis Center in Williston.

“I believe that it is extremely important to stress to the Williston Community that the information is strictly controlled,” Shepard wrote in the memo.

Shepard said Monday that he can understand residents’ concerns.

“They’re certainly there to help aid in investigations, they’re not there to solely spy on people,” he said of the readers, adding that the devices are only used on public roads. “I’m very comfortable based on my research that there are plenty of levels of security, even for law enforcement use.”

In the memo, Shepard wrote that officers who request to see the stored information must “attest in writing that the purpose of the inquiry is specifically related to a legitimate law enforcement purpose or it pertains to the safety of a missing or endangered adult.”

The Vermont Senate is currently considering a bill that would limit the length of time the information is stored to six months. Sen. Tim Ashe, who introduced the bill, said it is intended to balance privacy concerns with law enforcement uses.

“They have a legitimate purpose, but there ought to be some restraints on their use,” Ashe said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont would like to see storage length at 30 days.

“Police should not be collecting and retaining information about innocent people,” ACLU-VT Executive Director Allen Gilbert said Wednesday.  “While we may recognize the utility of the (automatic license plate reader) systems to identify people with outstanding warrants or who may face another violation such as driving with a suspended license, we don’t think that information that’s not related to those specific violations should be retained.”

Gilbert said the ACLU-VT supports a provision in the bill that would allow police to go to a court to ask that records from a time and place where a crime occurred be kept longer.

“Beyond that, records that might indicate where I went leaf peeping last year have no place in a police database,” Gilbert said.

The ACLU-VT has been working with police to find a policy they can agree on, and police officials have been “very good to work with,” Gilbert said.

Ashe expects the Senate to vote on the bill in the next two weeks.

Currently, the Williston Police Department has two readers, both of which were acquired through grants from Homeland Security. Williston is one of nearly 30 communities in Vermont to receive one or more of the devices since 2008. The first was installed in a cruiser last summer, and a second was installed this week.

Since Williston police began recording statistics in September, the first license plate reader has played a role in 22 suspended driver arrests, five arrests for possession of marijuana, three civil suspension tickets, a retail theft arrest and registrations violations, along with locating an assault suspect in a neighboring town, according to the memo.

“While early indications are positive, the Town has not yet committed to using these units, which are expensive, as a regular part of the department’s enforcement tools,” Shepard said in the memo. “The department is evaluating the usefulness of this tool and will work closely with the Selectboard to determine if the use of (license plate readers) should continue.”