I wanted to respond to comments and emails I've received abouot police-operated license plate readers.  Its an important issue, where we need to carefully balance privacy concerns and public safety benefits. 

Takoma Park's police currently have three mobile license plate readers that they attach to police cars and use while on patrol.  These readers help detect stolen vehicles, vehicles that are the subject of some sort of regional alert (for example, an Amber Alert where a vehicle has been associated with an abducted child), and vehicles that have expired license plates. 

Past Policy
Years ago, Takoma Park was one of the first jurisdictions in the area to adopt a policy to govern the use of the data captured by those readers.  Currently, our policy provides the authority to store data captured by the readers for 30 days, after which it must be deleted.    

Proposed Policy

The proposed policy creates a new statement of policy that only allows data to be used for law enforcement purposes.  The proposed policy maintains the limit that data would be kept by Takoma Park for only 30 days and then deleted from City files or computers.  The policy newly allows the automatic transfer of data to the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center (Coordination Center) where it could be kept for up to 1 year.  This is similar to the policy in place in the City of Rockville and I understand that Prince Georges County and Montgomery County are having discussions about passage of similar policies. 

What would automatic transfer of our data to the state Coordination Center and their retention of the data for one year mean? 

The Coordination Center is governed and overseen by state and other legislatures.  In fact, it is a helpful bill authored by our State Senator Jamie Raskin and passed by the Maryland legislature this year that makes some of these changes possible.  The bill is named SB699 and was passed unanimously by both the Maryland House and Senate.  The new state law mandates that:

  • law enforcement agencies can only request data for legitimate law enforcement purposes and defines those purposes,
  • creates fines and penalties for violation of data use (up to 1 year in jail),
  • prohibits data from being subject to Maryland Public Information Act disclosure,
  • requires the Coordination Center and State Police to report back annually to the Senate and House Judicial committees on the number of readings collected and requests for data made from the system (by each agencies) and whether those requests resulted in release of information and whether there were any data breaches ;
  • establishes reporting and audit requirements to ensure that data requests by individual police agencies or individual officers are tracked and can be audited,
  • requires development of an audit procedure for the state database
The bill text can be found here and I found the analysis and background by the nonpartisan professional staff of the legislature to be helpful as well.  Its linked here

The Standard Operating Policies of the Coordinating Center for License Plate Readers and data requests are here.  Their policy establishes a one-year retention limit on data storage unless the data will become evidence in a criminal or other law enforcement investigation.  

The ability to link license plate data to personal information (i.e. identifying the owner of a vehicle) is also regulated under the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act.  This law was authored by Congressman Jim Moran (D- Virginia) and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) and signed into law in 1994 by President Clinton. 

The ACLU's statement supporting SB699 can be found here and note that it supports the bill but indicates a preference for 30-day retention of the data or limits on the number of readers used in the state. The ACLU put out a policy last summer that you can find here and our policy (in conjunction with the new state policy) meets 8 out of 9 of their recommendations, the exception being the 1-year retention of data.

Why is retained data useful?

I have been on Council for about 3 years and during that time there have been a number of waves or hot spots of crimes like home break-ins that have occurred over many months.  Hypothetically, if there was evidence after months linking a suspect to earlier crimes, I understand how our police department's ability to ask for license plate reader information to find out if the suspect's car was in the area during the earlier crimes could be helpful in solving such cases.  There are many other scenarios associated with police efforts to solve crimes that I can think of or that our Police Chief has described, that would benefit from a similar ability to request specific data associated with active criminal investigations.  

Privacy protections

The legislation led by Senator Raskin and passed by the legislature creates safeguards and audits on the use and storage of data that simply didn't exist before, including criminal penalties for inappropriate use of the data. 

Next steps

The proposed policy has already received public testimony at one Council meeting and is scheduled for another work session this Monday night and public comment on the issue at the beginning of the meeting. 

I support the proposed policy change although I propose that we add a requirement for our police department to report back to Council on an annual basis on the number and type of their requests for data from the state Coordination Center database. 


 
 
Yesterday, the County announced its own figures on crime trends since 2007 and that provides a nice baseline to compare Takoma Park’s progress.  Serious crimes (murder, rape, robbery, assault) are down in Takoma Park by 55% since 2007, compared to 33% in the County or 14% nationwide.  All crime is down 37% in the city and 26% in the County.  These figures are based on similar ones the county used yesterday here, but amended to add Takoma Park into the picture.

And whereas the County saw all crime go up between 2000 and 2006 by 8%, in Takoma Park it dropped by 10% during that time.  These updated numbers come from our Police Department's crime report out yesterday and earlier ones which I have summarized before

We still have more work to do in better using technology and in better customer service from our police department.  We can do more to address crime hot spots before they get worse.  But these are encouraging statistics showing how we compare to the rest of the county.



 
 
Our 2012 budget left us with approximately $1.4 million in funds that were not allocated in June/July, with Council indicating an intent to do so by the end of the year.  I offer the following as draft suggestion to gauge the reaction of both my colleagues and constituents.  I emphasize that these are just draft suggestions and look forward to further discussion on this subject.  I think its important to find ways to give this money back to the community in ways that balance tax relief with city goals and fairly treat homeowners, businesses and renters

Property taxes: I would propose that we consider an allocation of 35 % of the funding to a property tax rebate that would go back to property owners in proportion to their existing property tax burden.  Approaching this as a rebate, rather than rate reduction, is a preferable approach per comments made by many on Council in spring 2012 during initial discussion of the budget (but we will look at property tax rates as part of the 2013 budget process next year).

Rental building improvements:
Not everyone in the City paying property taxes owns a single family home.  I propose that we set 25 % of the funding aside to allow single (or multi-year) reductions in property taxes for rental buildings (for example owned by housing development partnerships) to cover costs of energy efficiency improvements that would help reduce future costs of energy for renters.  This is a fair way to make sure all residents can benefit from the available funding and allow us to help reduce long-term housing costs. 

Commercial property:  Similar to the approach described above for rental buildings, I'd propose we set aside 20% of funds for programs (like those recommended in the TFEA report) that would create an incentive or cost-share to businesses installing energy efficiency upgrades, energy conservation measures or installing solar power or heat pumps.  Like the rental property proposal above, these changes would lower costs for businesses but also help achieve an important citywide goal that residents have identified.

City needs:  I propose that 20 % of the funding be used to pay for high priority services that would benefit residents and other city needs that were not identified at the time the budget was approved.  In particular, I am interested in Sunday hours (outside of summer) for the library, the purchase of the vacant lot at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Ethan Allen that could be used as a community garden and 'welcome' gateway. 

City debt:  I wouldn't allocate more of 2012 money here.  We paid off  bonded debt ahead of schedule in 2011.  We did the same thing again in 2012 already.  And the majority of our remaining debt cannot be paid off early anyway (terms of the remaining municipal building bond don't let us pay it off early until 2015).  We have less debt now, compared the value of property throughout the city, than we've had in 12 years, and I just don't foresee us having a problem with making future payments ahead of schedule as well.

Unfunded pension liabilities:  Unfunded pension liabilities include future things like the anticipated cost of a retiring police officer's pension in the near and distant future versus how much we have set aside for that cost.  The November 19th meeting agenda packet (and video) include more information on this.  This is an area where I would support us making additional investments.  My understanding is that we already have a lower unfunded liability than the average community but we could do better, and the level of liability is still a worry.

I emphasize that these are just draft suggestions and look forward to further discussion on this subject.
 
 
I posted on this in the fall but wanted to update this site with the Takoma Park Police Department's new data on crime in the City.  2011 was another year of falling crime, overall, in the City.  In 2009, we had 764 crimes reported.  In 2010, there were 653 crimes.  In 2011, that figure dropped to 565 crimes.  Any crime is still a bad thing but I thought this data from our Police Department's crime analyst would provide Ward 2 residents with a context around which to evaluate crime in the City.

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I know it doesn't always feel like it - an attempted burglary just happened on New Hampshire Avenue on August 6th - but crime in Takoma Park has been on a downward trend for years.  In 2002, approximately 5.5% of residents experienced a non-violent theft of property from their home or car - in 2010, that figure dropped to 3.5%.  Similarly for violent crime, just less than 1% of residents experienced a violent crime in 1980 - in 2010 that had dropped to approximately a 0.4% of residents.    In comparison, in nearby Hyattsville there is 60% more violent crime and 300% more non-violent property crime.

The Takoma Park Police Department reports on crime every year - for example the 2010 report is here and you can also find much of the data for many years here.  Another service our police department provides is near real time tracking of where crimes are occurring in a map that is available to the public.  They also track citations - for example in 2010 gave 40 citations to drivers who failed to stop or yield to pedestrians and bikes or blocked pedestrian/bike routes and saw a 70 % reduction in vehicle accidents with pedestrians or bikes versus 2009. 

We should be striving for continuous annual reductions in overall levels of violent and non-violent crime.  In particular, the City Council should be helping our police force continue to reduce the rate of burglaries, larcenies and auto thefts (nearly 600 occurred in 2010).  Any crime is unacceptable, but I am very satisfied with the services Takoma Park's police force provides for us.  We should - and do - have a police force that is responsive and accountable to the public.