PORTLAND — Police in Maine’s largest city this summer will test a high-tech camera system that scans license plates and checks them against various databases, including lists of suspended drivers, stolen vehicles and crime suspects.

A patrol cruiser should be equipped with the cameras soon, said Capt. Ted Ross. The department will evaluate the results before deciding whether to purchase one or more of the units, which cost about $20,000.

South Portland is the only community in the state using the technology, which has come under fire from civil libertarians and others concerned about privacy rights. Critics say automated license plate readers represent an unwarranted expansion in police surveillance, and that data could be used to track people’s movements.

A bill passed by the Legislature last year allows police to use the technology, but with some restrictions, including a provision that bars police from compiling lists at events such as peace rallies and public protests. The law also requires police to delete license plate data within 21 days of collection.

Ross said Portland waited for the legislation to take effect before considering a test run of the technology. “It is a tool that is used very successfully across the country,” he said.

Ross said the technology does not expand police power, but simply gives officers a faster way to do things that are already part of their jobs, such as running a plate to make sure a vehicle has not been reported stolen.

“Anything new draws a certain degree of concern from the general public,” he said. “There is no hidden agenda here, we are transparent. This is part of routine patrol.”

South Portland installed one of the readers on a cruiser in January 2010, and a second unit is expected to be used on patrol within the next few weeks. The city used money from federal Justice Assistance Grants to pay for the cameras and the software to run the system.

On Monday, Lt. Frank Clark said the first reader has resulted in the recovery of two stolen vehicles, as well as charges against 41 people for operating after license suspension or operating with a suspended registration.

Three of the traffic stops led to arrests for drug crimes, two resulted in the seizure of handguns and one led to the seizure of $15,000 in cash, Clark said.

“We think it’s meeting the objectives that we had starting out,” he said. “We’re very happy. To have those results over a 16-month period, roughly, that would not have happened if not for this technology.”

The Maine Civil Liberties Union initially supported a ban on the technology in Maine. Leaders of the organization worked closely with legislators and law enforcement last year to reach the compromise bill ultimately signed by then Gov. John Baldacci.

Although the MCLU is pleased with the “common-sense restrictions” placed on police in relation to the license plate readers, Executive Director Shenna Bellows said she opposes expansion of the technology.

“Everyone in America is presumed innocent and law-abiding. These mobile surveillance cameras turn that presumption of innocence on its head, into a presumption that everyone is guilty,” Bellows said. “We feel strongly that this technology is very powerful, and that the benefits to law enforcement shouldn’t be used to justify expansion of the system to place ordinary citizens under surveillance.”

 

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at: tmaxwell@pressherald.com