In a rare 3-2 vote for the current Menlo Park City Council, a new ordinance governing the use of surveillance data by law enforcement took the first step towards implementation last night, despite the police department's opposition.
Data captured by automated license plate readers must be destroyed after six months, unless it pertains to an active criminal investigation or court order, according to the terms of the ordinance. Security camera recordings will be kept for 90 days.
Other law enforcement agencies that want to access the data must first get permission from the Menlo Park police department and agree to comply with the regulations. Penalties for unauthorized use include potential termination, criminal prosecution and civil liability.
The Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, which will store Menlo Park's license plate data, will provide quarterly reports showing the number of plates captured, how many were on an active "wanted" list, and who asked to review the data and why.
Police Chief Robert Jonsen urged the council to adopt a resolution, which is essentially a policy statement, instead of an ordinance, which is an actual law. Disregarding a resolution doesn't carry the same potential for local penalties as it does with an ordinance, but the crux of his argument was that severe sanctions for misusing data are already in place at the state and federal levels.
"It comes down to public trust," Chief Jonsen said. He pointed out that no other police department currently operates under such an ordinance, and "this department has never given this community any reason to feel it would use the information inappropriately."
He said the regulations could backfire by making other law enforcement agencies reluctant to use Menlo Park's data if they have to sign an agreement to comply with yet another layer of oversight.
The council members voting in favor of the ordinance Ray Mueller, Kirsten Keith, and Rich Cline said it wasn't a matter of trust, but rather of checks and balances and retaining local control.
"I understand what you're saying," Ms. Keith told the police chief. But look at the penal code, she said, which has penalties for all sorts of crimes. "It doesn't mean that we think everyone is going to commit a crime."
Given how new the license plate reader technology is, the long-term ramifications are not really clear yet, Ms. Keith continued.
Mayor Mueller, who served with Ms. Keith on the subcommittee that drafted the regulations, suggested that while Menlo Park might be the only city with such an ordinance for now, that could change if the law helps other jurisdictions feel comfortable about using the license plate readers.
He said he wants the ordinance to show that there's "a prudent middle ground," another choice besides "use (the technology) or not."
On the other side of the debate, Councilman Peter Ohtaki dissented, saying that he thought the controls already in place were adequate when combined with a resolution. The mayor pointed out that, unlike the ordinance, those controls don't address data captured by cameras, but this failed to persuade his colleague to change his vote.
Vice Mayor Catherine Carlton, casting the other dissenting vote, seemed more concerned about destroying the data after only six months. She said she supported the ordinance, but worried that the data will be less useful to law enforcement without a longer retention period, such as 12 to 18 months.
"Basically in an effort to show how great Menlo Park is" about protecting privacy, we're inhibiting the ability to catch criminals, Ms. Carlton said.
She pointed out that other agencies working with NCRIC went with a one-year retention span; the mayor countered that the California Highway Patrol keeps data for only 60 days.
Go to the city's website to review the terms of the ordinance. It will take effect 30 days after a second reading, provided the council doesn't reverse course.