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The saying is “what’s in a name,” but in this case it’s what’s in a license plate. The Guilford Police is getting ready to deploy some new technology through the License Plate Reader Project that will help police officers more efficiently identify if a particular plate should spark any cause for further investigation.
Guilford Chief of Police Jeff Hutchinson spoke to the Board of Selectmen (BOS) about the program at its meeting on Dec. 3. The program is a pilot program with the Connecticut State Police and a few other towns in the area and is designed to help police identify vehicles with specific alerts and improve communication sharing among various police organizations.
Through the program, Guilford Police will acquire two license plate readers in the coming months that will be attached to two patrol vehicles. Those devices, at $16,156 each and approved in the prior year’s police budget, are mounted to a patrol car and are known as passive readers. The device, which has three cameras, will take a snapshot of each passing license plate and use a system to quickly identify if that plate has been previously flagged.
“Every time there is a shoplifting or a missing person or a wanted person or a silver alert or amber alert, you will get the info on those that are most recent and up-to-date from your [police] briefing,” said Hutchinson. “But if you have an amber alert out of Wisconsin, that is not necessarily something you are sitting on the side of the road looking for and this equipment basically helps you identify things like that. It’s using technology to enhance public safety.”
When the device scans a plate, the plate number is processed in a system that can help police officers determine whether that plate has been identified by other law enforcement officers as attached to a wanted vehicle or to an Amber Alert or Silver Alert. The device helps officers determine whether a vehicle is wanted or might merit further investigation.
While some privacy advocates and organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union have identified potential issues with some law enforcement systems that capture, store, and retrieve license plate information, Hutchinson said he’s confident this system does not create problems related to privacy.
“For us, this tool is like putting more eyes on the road with more data collection capabilities,” he said. “A guy can’t scan cars going in multiple directions, punch the plates into a computer, and find out if anything is going on with them. If people have issues about privacy, this doesn’t look at anything other than a registration plate, which is not subject to Fourth Amendment restrictions. It’s a plate that is on your car and you don’t need a search warrant or anything to see those. And again, we verify and follow up before we take any action that it is legitimate.”
Hutchinson said officers are aware that technology isn’t 100 percent accurate, so even if the device pings on a certain plate, officers will still follow up before taking any action.
“We want to be real careful about the way we use these things,” he said. “We are not looking to go beyond the scope of what we intended. There have been a lot of close looks at this as to what it is being used for, so we don’t want to go spy on people or do anything like that. It’s a passive reader and essentially the reader takes pictures of license plates. It has a hot list in it that is updated every 24 hours, so it can be wanted persons, silver alerts, amber alerts, and criminal activity related items. So even if we get a hit off of the hot list, we still have to confirm before we take any law enforcement action.”
At the BOS meeting, the board approved First Selectman Matt Hoey signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection and the Town of Guilford Police Department concerning access to vehicle-related information in the National Crime Information Center system for the License Plate Reader Project. That agreement controls how the license plate reader device can be used and how the data it collects can be used.
“It’s law enforcement only, so we are not going to go using it for revenue collection or people can’t come to us and say, ‘Can you go check some plates?’” said Hutchinson. “There has to be some investigation…It’s really important that we use this appropriately and there are a lot of checks and balances in place both with the MOU and our department policy.”
Police expect to put the devices into use in a couple of months.
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