South Portland police camera sparks debate on civil liberties

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SOUTH PORTLAND — State Sen. Larry Bliss, D-South Portland, this week said he no longer supports a bill that would ban a new traffic surveillance system being tested by the South Portland Police Department.

But the Maine Civil Liberties Union said it will fight for passage of the bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, and originally co-sponsored by Bliss.

The department is the first law enforcement agency in the state to use cruiser roof-mounted cameras that can read license plate numbers on passing cars and automatically search for them on several local, state and federal databases.

Bliss said he agreed to MCLU Executive Director Shenna Bellows request to co-sponsor the bill before he fully understood the technology’s capabilities and limitations. But after seeing the technology first-hand, Bliss said he no longer believes the system infringes on civil liberties.

“I think people will be safer,” he said. “I think the things people talk about being the most afraid of, in truth, are things that police officers have been doing for years.”

MCLU Legal Director Zachary Heiden said the organization supports the bill because the new technology essentially puts every South Portland citizen under surveillance without cause.

Heiden noted how last year the Legislature passed a similar ban on stop-light enforcement cameras mounted on traffic signals.

“To put the entire population under surveillance really violates the balance between our personal freedom and the police’s authority,” he said.

Heiden said the MCLU is researching other communities who have used the technology. Although unconfirmed, Heiden said he has seen reports from Seminole, Fla., where the technology led to false arrests and abuse by the city manager and Police Department.

Police Lt. Frank Clark said there is a general misunderstanding about what the technology can and cannot do.

Clark said the system, purchased using federal grant money, does not violate civil liberties because police cannot access any personal information about a vehicle owner unless the owner is wanted for a felony.

The system does, however, alert officers about vehicles that are on “hot lists,” like those associated with dangerous, wanted, missing or endangered persons; Amber Alerts; “be on the lookout” alerts; domestic violence offenders and stolen vehicles.

Clark said there is a misconception that an officer has all of the information he needs when approaching a vehicle during a traffic stop. That information depends on dispatchers, he said, who often cannot tell officers in a timely manner if a dangerous felon could be in the vehicle.

“We believe use of the (system) will allow us to better serve and protect our communities, and will help officers be better – and more quickly – informed of potentially dangerous situations,” Clark wrote in an open letter in opposition to the bill.

But the system is also capable of building a database that logs the movement of all the vehicles whose plates are scanned.

“The camera is not the real problem,” Heiden said. “It’s the database this camera feeds that’s the problem. This database is going to contain a searchable map of everyone’s movements throughout the city.”

Although police can already access a great deal of personal information about drivers through manual entry, Clark said the MCLU’s concerns are not insignificant.

“There’s two different perspectives,” Clark said. “I think there is a lot of room in the middle where we can come to some sort of consensus and make this technology work.”

Clark said the department is finalizing a policy for the system. In the meantime, he said, the only time the stored data can be accessed is if there is sufficient evidence that a vehicle has been associated with illegal activity.

If a vehicle is stolen, Clark said, police could enter the plate number into the system and it will give officers a general date, time and location of where that vehicle was last scanned.

Clark said that feature can only be accessed by two people in the department and only with the chief’s permission.

Ultimately, Clark said the department would like the system to be linked to a state database on habitually dangerous drivers.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]