Followup for Portsmouth Town Council on license plate readers at Mt. Hope BridgeBy John McDaid | Thursday, 23 June 2022
Members of the Council:
Following up on my prior letter to the Council, I'm very grateful for the initial response I've received and the tentative approval to place this item on the agenda at the July 11 meeting for reconsideration. As backup for that discussion, I'm attaching a PDF of the minutes of the Bristol Town Council meeting of May 11 when the proposal was discussed there as well as the Bristol PD policy on ALPR.
It is significant to note that Bristol Town Council agenda item was not for "consideration" but rather for "presentation," and their action was to "receive and file." So Portsmouth may have taken action based on an assumption about what Bristol had done which may not be accurate: this was not a robust hearing about the facts, but a presentation from the PD.
Getting to the policy, I have annotated the enclosed document to highlight differences, as well as points that bear further scrutiny.
There is a significant difference in the usage policy (Section II of the PD policy document) with Bristol adding a paragraph specifying broader uses (including homeland security, which renders the exclusion of ICE and CBP moot.) It is important to note that Portsmouth residents driving over the bridge would necessarily be subject to this, even if Portsmouth PD policy differs.
Another key difference is government oversight. In Section IV, which bears on acquisition of ALPR or expansion of scope, the Bristol PD requires an "advertised public hearing," while the Portsmouth PD only requires a "public presentation to the Town Council." A presentation is not a hearing. Democratically elected officials exercising oversight is critical, and while I trust both the Council and the Portsmouth PD, there is no substitute for public input.
Section V, Portsmouth adds "vehicles associated with criminal investigations" to the list of ALPR uses. Odd for something being justified for suicide prevention. It's almost as if suicide prevention is a pretext for inserting these cameras into our community.
This is a minor but telling nit: Section V (E) shows that Portsmouth PD simply started with a thoroughgoing copy of the Bristol PD policy, since it includes the transposition of CPB [sic] for CBP.
And another nit: Section VI (G). On a purely technical note, the phrase used here is "Chief of Police or his designee." Since this is a policy theoretically meant to survive for some duration, would it not be more appropriate to say "their" designee.
Section VI(G)5 specifies multiple locally created hot lists to be loaded into the system for scanning: SIU, Detectives, Traffic, and All Department. If this is really for suicide prevention, what are all these hot lists for?
In the Bristol backup, Flock justified their single-source contractor status by saying that they are the only company with the capabilities to "analyze vehicle license plate, state recognition, vehicle color, vehicle type, vehicle make and objects (roof rack, unique hubcap, etc.) based on image analytics." Again, this belies the label "ALPR" for these cameras; they capture much, much more than license plates. The words we use to describe things matter, and ALPR conceals more than it reveals about what these cameras do.
And the inclusion of the discussion of single source raises questions about the acquisition process: If Portsmouth PD were going to pay for these cameras, wouldn't they have to go out to bid? Is running a "free" pilot program just a way to bypass the bidding process? Who pays to take the cameras down at the end of the "pilot?" Or does Flock expect that this will just roll over into a yearly $5,000 subscription?
And speaking of "free," given that the cameras require maintaining local "hit lists" (including a requirement for weekly audits of lists) and the policy specifies a mandatory quarterly data audit, as well as the creation of a "transparency portal" updated quarterly, that means there is a non-zero staff time cost, which I assume was not factored into the decision.
I thank the Council for your time and consideration, and for all you do for our town.