South Portland uses grants to grow police force, technology

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Nearly $200,000 in grants will allow the city to hire an additional police officer, outfit another police cruiser with automated license plate readers and switch to an automated parking ticket system.

The city was recently awarded nearly $170,000 in a U.S. Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services grant, as well as more than $28,000 in a 2010 Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance grant.

The COPS grant will completely fund an additional police officer for three years, according to City Manager Jim Gailey, who said the city must keep the officer on staff for a fourth year at its own expense.

“Hopefully, we keep the officer for good,” Gailey said at Monday’s City Council meeting, when the grants were accepted. “We all know we need to beef up our police force and this is one way of doing it.”

Police Chief Edward Googins said the new officer will bring staffing to 53 officers, one above the council-authorized level.

Meanwhile, the Byrne grant will be used to outfit a second police cruiser with automated license plate recognition technology.

Last year, South Portland police became the first department in the state to install the technology, which scans license plate numbers and alerts the officer if that plate number is listed on any number of crime databases. 

The technology drew the ire of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, which was concerned about privacy issues and placing all citizens under criminal surveillance. The MCLU worked with legislators to create an oversight committee and limit how long data can be stored.

Googins said the technology only reads the license plate numbers, and personal information about the vehicle’s registered owner can only be accessed manually by the officer.

Googins said the technology has led to nearly 40 citations, mostly of people driving with suspended licenses. Police also used the plate scanners to track a burglary suspect, he said.

“It helped in the investigation,” Googins said. “It’s very, very worthwhile technology.”

Police Lt. Frank Clark said on Tuesday that he is not aware of any complaints that the technology has been misused. The scanners have also led to more than a handful of additional charges for operating under the influence, drug and weapon possession, and outstanding warrants, he said.

The council on Monday also approved a bid from the Florida-based Advanced Public Safety for computer hardware and software for an automated parking ticket system.

Police officers currently write out tickets by hand and give copies to a secretary, who manually enters the information into a computer system.

Information technology Director Shawn Pennington said the new system will allow officers to enter the vehicle’s license plate number and the violation into a computer. The rest of the information is imported from a state database and a ticket is printed out.

In response to Councilor Patti Smith’s question about whether the new system would save the city money, Pennington said savings would likely result from “soft costs.”

“There’s going to be a lot of time savings,” he said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

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