Palo Alto Police Department officially implements “new” enforcement tool without a policy

license plate readerPalo Alto police said yesterday that they don’t have an official policy for their new automatic license plate readers, which can take photos of thousands of plates per day but promised that they will soon.

As the post first reported yesterday, police have begun using a car equipped with automatic license plate readers, which are controversial because they can’t collect data on the day-to-day activities of innocent citizens.

But Lt. Zach Perron said yesterday the department currently only had a rough draft of a policy for how the information gathered by the readers will be used and stored, but was consulting with other cities in the county to figure it out.

Although police departments around the country say the readers help them catch criminals, privacy advocates, such as the a ACLU, warn that the numerous photos the cameras take could be abused to track innocent people without their knowledge.

The a ACLU, in a report it released last week entitled “You Are Being Tracked,” said many police departments it checked across the country lack policies that would guard against abuse of the data.

A key concern is how long the license plate data would be stored. “Data retention periods should be measured in days or weeks, not months or years, so that databases of our movements aren’t created in the first place,” the ACLU report said.

Perron said that the police department recognizes the concerns of critics and that police will only be allowed to look up information on people when it is related to a suspected crime the same “right to know ” or “need to know” criterion that applies with all other technologies that the department uses to investigate people.

Any police officer who violates that policy could face criminal prosecution and lose their job, Perron said.

“Were aware of the concerns that people have and that’s why it’s important to have a policy that addresses those concerns, “Perron said. “We have to make sure the technology is used legally and ethically.”

Chiefs to discuss plate readers

Perron said that the department plans to have an official policy soon after in Aug. 8 meeting of the Santa Clara county police Chiefs Association, which will discuss the system and develop a policy together, since all cities in the County have been given license plate readers with money from a grant obtained by the county.

Until then, Perron said, officers will be required to only use the information gathered by the readers when it applies to investigation.

Parron said that as a further precaution, none of the data store by the license plate readers will be stored until Aug. 26.

Perron added yesterday that Palo Alto’s upcoming policy would include plans for regular audits of the license plate readers system to make sure that the information gathered isn’t being abused.

Last year, then-state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alro introduced a bill that would limit the amount of time local police departments could retain plate data to 60 days unless the agency is using the data to investigate a crime. The bill died in the legislature after heavy lobbying against it by law enforcement and the manufacturers of plate readers.

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3 Replies to “Palo Alto Police Department officially implements “new” enforcement tool without a policy”

  1. Our email sent to: Lieutenant Zach Perron
    Manager, Investigative Services Division
    Palo Alto Police Department

    We have a number of concerns. First I’m sure you recognize this new technology as a “tool” which all police refer to in the same light as tazer and yet you have no policy. Do you realize what your your saying????

    That’s like putting the proverbial horse before the cart…..Is this what Chief Burns often speaks and describes as assuring police “best practices”?

  2. Mr. Petersen-Perez,

    As of this morning, Sergeant Brian Philip is handling all inquiries about the license plate recognition system. He can be reached via a request placed through dispatch at 650-329-2413. I am leaving now and will be out of the office until August 15. But, I wanted to respond to your e-mail before I left…

    Since this system is new to all of us throughout the county, our administration is currently working with the administrations of the other county law enforcement agencies to write a policy that is mutually agreed upon and that is consistent with state and federal law. We will also be consulting with the company that produces the policy manuals of most agencies in California (us included). That company regularly monitors updates in case law and makes recommendations for policies based upon the law and statewide best practices.

    It’s important to note that the policy will include information on audit trails and inspections that will be done routinely on the system to ensure it is being legally used by personnel. The retention schedule of any records kept by the system will be enumerated in that policy once it is adopted; however, the initial plan at this point is for the Sheriff’s Office to retain the data for a period of one year. The Santa Clara County Police Chiefs’ Association will be discussing the system and policy governing its use at their next meeting on August 8. And while the system went “live” Tuesday in Palo Alto, no data is actually being stored until August 26.

    In the meantime, the personnel operating our single unit have undergone training from the manufacturer on how to use the system, and are governed by state law and our long-existing procedures controlling the accessibility of law enforcement information – they are always required to have a legitimate “right to know” and “need to know” in order to execute their official responsibilities.



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