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Westminster council approves use of license plate reader

After a month of debate, the Westminster Common Council voted 4 to 1 Monday to approve the use of a license plate reader within the city police department.

The council, which has expressed privacy concerns related to the use of license plate readers, agreed to their usage in the city for a three month pilot program.

Councilman Paul Whitson was the lone vote against the use of the technology, which scans license plates automatically during an officer's routine patrol to search for vehicles that might be stolen or linked to an open warrant.

The council did approve a stipulation that Westminster Police Chief Jeff Spaulding inquire into the possibility of not submitting information to the database from vehicles not stolen or linked to an open warrant.

Whitson said he voted against the measure because he would have preferred the city wait for confirmation whether or not the city could elect not to submit data to a database containing information from license plate readers across the state.

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. Once an officer receives this information, they must then verify the information with a dispatch officer before moving forward.

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

Spaulding said after the meeting that he was not sure when the license plate reader would begin to be used in the city, but his hope is that it is before the end of the year.

Spaulding has 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.

Common Council members had an opportunity over the past two weeks to see a demonstration of the readers in action and councilman Tony Chiavacci said he was amazed with its accuracy and efficiency although he still had concerns with it being "Orwellian" and "big brother."

"I can see why the chief wants it," he said.

There are 63 agencies around the state already using this technology, according to David Engel, director of the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center.

"If an alarm is triggered on a Westminster City police car, that doesn't give them the authority to automatically stop a vehicle," Engel said. "They have to continue to develop reasonable suspicion to make that stop."

Engel, whose agency handles the database of information from license plate readers, addressed council concerns regarding license plate readers Monday night.

The Carroll County Sheriff's Office has employed the use of two license plate readers since 2010.

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

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