Are you scared? Are you in danger? Are crooks hiding behind every tree and shrub in the city, ready to jump you? Are they outside your house right now plotting to steal your car, break into your home, take all your stuff, and KILL YOU???
Nope, they aren’t! Relax!
The Takoma Park Police are ON THE JOB, Dear Reader!
Crime does not pay! Not in Takoma Park! Not according to police chief Ronald A. Ricucci
The chief presented the police department’s 2008 annual report to the city council Jan. 26, and the good news is that crime is down!
The news would have been a little more sparkly if the chief hadn’t been preceded by a resident complaining about vandals burning down his fence in the dead of night. Oh, and there was the recent incident of someone strolling through city neighborhoods, randomly slashing car tires.
The chief acknowledged all that, but, he said, despite recent incidents the statistics show an overall crime decrease.
The lowered crime rates: drops of 22% each for larceny and assault, 24% for auto theft, and 4% each for robbery and burglary, were attributed by the chief to increased police visibility including bike and foot patrols, a full staff, the plainclothes unit, and quick response time. The chief said that his officers have heard “good feedback” from criminals, saying the city is an increasingly risky place for them to operate.
The percentage of cases closed has increased by 15% since 2007 as well.
More good news, said Ricucci, is the department’s increased openness, public relations, and communications with city residents since he became chief two years ago next month. The police now daily issue crime reports, warnings, and press releases via e-mail to many citizens and community list serves.
It may be that the flood of crime information feeds the impression many have that crime is increasing in the city. The chief said he hopes to change that impression, but he said it may take more than the annual report to get the news out that crime has decrease. For example, he said, many residents are fearful of muggings near Metro, but there have been none during commuter hours since August.
While the council were all smiles about the report the chief pitched his request for a license plate scanner. The smiles faded as the councilmembers reached for their ACLU membership cards.
The license plate scanner works almost instantaneously, according to police captain Edward Coursey who was there to describe it. An officer can park his cruiser by a crossroads and if a car goes by with a plate that matches a data base of stolen cars, or cars driven by wanted criminals, or perhaps cars full of Catholic nuns on their way to an anti-death penalty rally, an alarm will go off and the officer can start after the perpetrators before the car has left the intersection. A few jolts from the taser later, the badies are in custody.
Niftier is how a patrol car can drive through a parking lot, say the parking lot outside a meeting of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and easily scan every license plate within seconds. Previously, it could have taken a good half hour for the officer to write down each plate number.
Better yet, the device stores all the license plate numbers it “sees.” So, if it develops that an unreported stolen car or criminal or antiwar protester passes by, the police have a record that will help track the evil-doer’s movements.
The device only looks for and reacts to plate numbers that are on databases fed into it. Typical data bases used would be a list of stolen cars, suspended licenses, or cars wanted in connection with amber alerts or the FBI wanted-list.
The scanner does, however keep a record of all the license plates it “sees,” and this concerned the council on civil liberties grounds. Coursey and the chief told them that the potential for civil liberties violations depends on how they are directed to deal with the stored record, what data bases are used, and what agencies they are allowed to share data with. The county, for instance, has a number of these scanners and would be interested in having access to the city’s scanner data.
It is up to the users – the police under the direction of the council – to decide when to dump stored license plate information, and who to allow access to it. Most jurisdictions keep the data for 30 days. The users can also choose which data bases to check plates against.
The police pointed out that collecting license plate numbers is an old tactic, the scanner just makes it faster and more efficient.
Though the council saw the scanner’s usefulness, many of them were still caught up on the potential for abuse of the data and said they wanted to think about it some more.
None of them seemed inclined to turn down the device entirely, but they might place restrictions on its use.
Councilmember Seamens said he was concerned about keeping data on innocent people, saying that though everyone present was a “good guy,” that didn’t guarantee that license scans couldn’t be abused by people who are “not so good.”
Councilmember Josh Wright cited recent examples of such abuse – state police spying on peace, anti-death penalty, and environmental activists right here in Takoma Park.
Councilmember Reuben Snipper saw automation of police duties as a subtle form of abuse. He cited the concept of “effective privacy,” in which a person can expect anonymity as he goes about his business. Such a person might get his license plate number checked by a police officer who observes suspicious behavior, but the officer is not writing down every license plate that passes and running a check on it. That crosses the border into iIntrusiveland
Colleen Clay was optimistic, saying she was confident that a policy could be crafted that would protect civil liberties.