City spreads its data

Resident Peter Marra addresses the city council July 21.


In what became characterized as a civil liberties versus personal safety battle, the Takoma Park City Council voted narrowly Monday July 21 to share data collected by license plate readers with other counties and the state.

Police say the automated license plate readers help in crime-solving. The mobile scanners allow police to compare captured digital images of license plates with lists of known “plates of interest.” But opponents of the change, including councilmembers Seth Grimes, Terry Seamens and Jarrett Smith, who voted against the resolution, argue that the data-sharing infringes on personal privacy and has not been proven to solve crimes faster.

Under its former policy, Takoma Park mandated that that data be automatically dumped after 30 days. Now, it will be transferred to the Maryland State Coordination and Analyses Center, where it will kept for up to one year.

Grimes 7.21.14

Councilmember Seth Grimes was one of the three who opposed the resolution.

“I think we have to make this info available to other jurisdictions,” said Mayor Bruce E. Williams. “I would hate to see us being the hole in this web.”

Victims speak

Two residents – both victims of the rash of crimes along Sycamore Avenue early this year, and who have been outspoken proponents of the change – spoke in favor of altering the reader policy.

“In my opinion, reasonable compromises have been made to ensure both safety and civil liberty,” said Peter Marra, who has had his house broken into three times and his car stolen. “I support anything we can do to make the license plate scanners effective and active here, and for the retention time to be as long as it possibly can be.”
Jen Ujifusma was robbed at gunpoint in January.


Jen Ujifusma.

“As Takoma Park and Maryland citizens, we should be able to benefit from the Maryland database in a way that we can’t currently,” she said.

Ujifusma’s sentiment was a key point during the debate, as councilmembers disagreed over whether aligning the city’s policy with that of neighboring jurisdictions constituted a concession of civil liberties or collaboration in crime-solving.

Other city’s data

Takoma Park Police Chief Alan Goldberg said that his police force currently uses other cities’ data to track criminals who travel through Takoma Park.

“We don’t use our data, but we use everyone else’s around us … By adding ours to that mix we can exonerate and eliminate a suspect,” Goldberg said.

Seamans was unconvinced that police had proven the readers’ value and necessity.
“The problems I hear that we’re solving is that we’ll be like the other jurisdictions in providing data to the state, and I don’t think that’s justification for the change,” Seaman said.

Can drop out at any time

Shultz argued that taking pictures of license plates — which happens all the time when you drive through a speed camera, he added — doesn’t equate to tracking peoples’ identities.

“I frankly don’t see how my civil liberties will be threatened,” said Shultz, who voted to pass the resolution, along with mayor Bruce Williams and councilmembers Tim Male, and Kate Stewart. “If for some reason we find that there is nefarious use for this [program], we can drop out at any time. We will be paying very close attention to this.”

Takoma Park is one of 64 Maryland law enforcement agencies that use the license plate readers – 80 percent of which send their data to the state analysis center, according to the report on a new bill signed by Gov. Martin O’Malley. The law limits the use of license plate reader data to law enforcement, and goes into effect Oct. 1.

Too much data for them to pass up

Even with the safeguards provided in the governor’s bill, dissenting council members feared that the mass of information collected could become a target of larger agencies.
“My concern is with the intelligence community,” said Smith. “This is too much data for them to pass up. Do they already have access to it? Probably. But this is the one time we can do something.”

Under the new policy, police will have to report to the city council on the effectiveness of the program at least once a year. Councilmembers Monday also added language specifying the city’s right to change its policy if the state center’s data-coordination practices changes.


About the Author

Rose Creasman Welcome
Rose is a California transplant who covered local news in San Diego. She taught, mentored and edited student reporters at a semester-long journalism training program on Capitol Hill for three years. She's also spent time as a freelance copyeditor and writer for nonprofit publications and magazines. Today, she's working in public health communications and sharpening her multiplatform reporting skills as a Master's student at University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. She lives in Takoma Park with her husband and one-year-old son.