Westminster grapples with police use of license plate readers

The Westminster Police Department could soon begin using license plate readers -- technology that scans license plates automatically during an officer's routine patrol to search for vehicles that might be stolen or linked to an open warrant.

But Westminster City Council members are leery of approving a proposal by Westminster Police Chief Jeff Spaulding that would allow such technology.

"No longer are we talking about using technology to specifically identify a crime. Now we are using technology to look at the entire population for the possibility of crime," Council President Robert Wack said at the Sept. 23 city council meeting.

Before the council is a memorandum of understanding that would allow city police officers to use license plate readers that would be linked to criminal databases maintained by the FBI.

The readers, which are placed on police cruisers, will alert officers during a patrol if it detects a stolen vehicle or a vehicle linked to an open warrant.

"It makes us far more effective in arresting wanted individuals living or traveling through our community," Spaulding has said.

The police department has purchased one license plate reader, which was funded through a $21,000 federal homeland security grant, Spaulding said.

If approved by the council, Spaulding said he plans to use the device on routine patrols by officers and in areas with higher or periodic crime issues. The technology would only scan vehicles parked or traveling in public areas and does not represent anything police officers can't already do.

The Mayor and Council have discussed the issue of license plate readers at length during two September council meetings and could make a decision on whether to approve the use of the technology at its next meeting on Oct. 14.

Council members have voiced concerns with privacy and the effectiveness of the tool.

Mayor Kevin Utz, a retired Maryland State Police Trooper, has said he sees both sides of the issue, but questions whether an officer will verify information from the license plate reader with a dispatch officer before taking action.

Utz added that he is also fearful the license plate readers will lead officers to spend more time in their vehicles than out in the community.

"I could take it or leave it," he said of the license plate readers.

Spaulding has called the use of license plate readers an important enhancement to the Westminster Police Department with the current budget preventing him from adding officers to the department.

There are about 60 agencies around the state using this technology, according to Spaulding.

The Carroll County Sheriff's Office has employed the use of license plate readers since 2010, according to Col. Phil Kasten.

The Sheriff's Office has two license plate readers and uses them at scenes of serious traffic collisions, areas with repeated traffic complaints, and areas with reported patterns of theft, according to Kasten.

Kasten said the license plate readers have been beneficial in locating drivers on suspended or revoked driver's licenses and wanted individuals since they have been put in use.

If approved by the council, Spaulding said the reader could be in use within 30 to 45 days dependent upon officer training and getting the device installed.

He said data collected from license plate readers will not be retained in a local database.

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