Bremerton to debut automated license plate reader?

An automatic license plate recognition system, capable of reading thousands of plates per day, may soon hit the streets of Bremerton.

By a 7-1 vote on Wednesday, the Bremerton City Council gave Bremerton police the nod to exercise a $30,000 grant from the Washington Association of Sheriff’s and Police Chiefs to put bids out for the cutting edge technology.

Poulsbo and Port Orchard applied for the same grant, but were turned down, and the Bremerton Police Department has until June 30, 2009 to use it.

Wednesday’s vote was the first in what Councilman Roy Runyon called a “two-step process.” A future vote, authorizing purchase of the system, looms.

Before the vote, Bremerton Police Capt. Tom Wolfe pitched to the council why Bremerton could use — and needs — the system.

“The whole idea behind this is to use it as a multiplier to identify stolen vehicles,” he said.

The setup, consisting of three or four cameras, automatically checks plate numbers against a database which determines whether a car is associated with a warrant, stolen or marked as an Amber Alert.

On a typical shift, Wolfe said, an officer may run between 50 and 100 license plates manually. But those checks are prone to human error and less efficient, limiting the number of plate checks an officer can make daily.

The automated system reads multiple plates simultaneously, from distances as far as 29 feet and speeds up to 160 mph.

“It’s capable of whatever it can see,” Wolfe said.

More than 50 percent of crime is car-related, Wolfe said, and a spike in Bremerton car thefts since 2003 — about 150 and 200 are swiped annually — is reason to bring the system in.

And other agencies, including the California Highway Patrol and police in Cincinnati, are finding success with the same plate-reader.

“They can’t say enough good things about it,” Wolfe said, likening it to radios of the 1950s. “We can’t find any downside to it at this time.”

If introduced to Bremerton, the equipment would be installed in one cruiser and used for two shifts daily, about 16 total hours.

Wolfe offered council members success stories associated with the system, including a Pennsylvania patrolman who captured a murder-kidnap suspect after matching a license plate to data in the system.

But Councilmen Brad Gehring and Adam Brockus, who voted “no,” questioned the surveillance’s data retention, saying innocent civilians shouldn’t be tracked.

Brockus asked Wolfe how long the system holds the data of non-criminals, or “non-hits,” what the policy is for keeping that data and whether it could be stolen or accessed by the Department of Homeland Security.

While the state has yet to draft those policies, Wolfe said 60 days is typical for non-criminal data retention. That number, however, could change.

“We could shorten that,” Wolfe said. “That may be possible, it’s something we’re researching.”

“I feel apprehensive to put the cart before the horse, so to speak,” Brockus said of the un-drafted policy.

Gehring, too, wondered why — and if — data on non-criminals should be stored.

“I don’t see the validity in keeping the information of regular citizens for 60 days,” he said. “All the other factors are very positive.”

Council President Will Maupin called the system “amazing technology,” but said privacy rights of ordinary citizens should be protected.

“I share the concerns about privacy rights,” he said.

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