“Every once in a while our detectives will use the ALPR database for retrospective searches,” said Griffin, adding that the technology has proved useful to scan vehicles in neighborhoods surrounding crime scenes.
Griffin’s counterpart in Fitchburg, Officer Paul McNamara, said license scanner data played a crucial role in solving a string of indecent exposure incidents at Fitchburg State University in April 2011. At the request of the university police, McNamara entered the alleged flasher’s plate into his license-scan database. The system indicated that a suspect’s vehicle had passed the scanner just 10 minutes earlier, leading to a suspect’s arrest and later guilty plea to charges of indecent exposure and lewdness.
McNamara said that there is no formal process when another police department requests a licence inquiry of this kind into his unit’s database.
“It can’t be a fishing expedition, though,” he said. “We look at it as a form of mutual aid, so it has to be a serious criminal matter for us to share data.”
While law enforcement officials are enthusiastic, critics can point to alleged abuses:
■ In 2004, police tracked Canadian reporter Kerry Diotte via automated license scans after he wrote articles critical of the local traffic division. A senior officer admitted to inappropriately searching for the reporter’s vehicle in a license scan database in an attempt to catch Diotte driving drunk.
■ Plainclothes NYPD officers used license readers to scan license plates of worshipers at a mosque in 2006 and 2007, the Associated Press reported, under a program that was partially funded by a federal drug enforcement grant.
■ In December, the Minneapolis Police Department released a USB thumb drive with 2.1 million license plate scans and GPS vehicle location tags in response to a public records request, raising fears that such releases might help stalkers follow their victims. A few days later, the Minneapolis mayor asked the state to classify license scan data as nonpublic.
ACLU attorney Fritz Mulhauser warned last summer that, within a few years, police will be able to use license scan records to determine whether a particular vehicle “has been spotted at a specific church, union hall, bar, political party headquarters, abortion clinic, strip club, or any number of other locations a driver might wish to keep private.”
But many law enforcement officials say they are just starting to tap the potential of license plate scanners.
“If anything, we’re not using ALPR enough,” said Medford’s Chief Leo Sacco, who would like to deploy the scanners 24 hours a day on all of his cruisers.
Massachusetts public safety officials are trying to create a central repository of license scans similar to a system in Maryland where all 262 scanner-equipped cruisers feed data to the state. In 2011, the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security handed out $750,000 in federal grants for 43 police departments to buy scanners with the understanding that all scan results would be shared.
The bill introduced on Beacon Hill by Senator Cynthia Creem and Representative Jonathan Hecht would allow police to share scan results for law enforcement purposes, but it would require every agency to develop formal policies that protect privacy. It would also set statewide standards for preserving camera scanner data and require regular reports to the state on how departments are using their scanners.
Currently, even the state Executive Office of Public Safety lacks a formal policy governing the use of its planned database, while 36 police departments out of the 53 using automated license readers have no written policies, the survey found. The Massachusetts State Police are currently developing a policy for the department’s 20 camera scanners.
Even departments that do have formal license-reading policies differ widely on specifics such as whether the collected data must be released to the public in response to a written request; Wakefield and Revere say no; many others use vague language that leaves it unclear.
Likewise, the police differ widely on how long they can retain license scans not connected to an ongoing investigation or law enforcement action, ranging from as little as 14 days in Somerville and Brookline to indefinitely in Milford.
The town of Brookline, police, and selectmen have worked with the ACLU to develop perhaps the most detailed policies in the state.
Brookline’s policy prohibits using camera scanners to intimidate or harass, to infringe free speech, or to conduct discriminatory surveillance based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or other protected characteristics. The Brookline policy also requires civilian oversight and biannual audits for the town’s camera scanner system, which will be online within the next two months, according to Police Chief Daniel O’Leary. Continued...