A Register story on Sunday reported the federal spying program's ties to the city. Through two cameras mounted on a Sandusky police cruiser's trunk, the device logs license plate numbers and transmits the data to an organization affiliated with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It has been in place since mid-November.
At a public meeting Monday, a contingent of local residents — led by city commissioner Diedre Cole — have harshly criticized use of the device.
Cole's comments centered on two points: The cameras are an invasion of privacy, and they provide no benefit to local residents or police officers.
"The public has a right to know that while you are sleeping, the police department is traversing the streets of Sandusky with a vehicle that captures your license plates and transmits that data to Homeland Security," Cole said. "Residents need to be made aware that this technology will allow a blueprint of your life to be accessed by officers scanning your license plate."
Sandusky police Chief John Orzech said the the device can might be useful to assist officers tracking down stolen vehicles.
Orzech said the data compiled from scanning license plates is indeed stored by Homeland Security, but he doesn't know how the data is used or maintained.
Among the other problems:
•The license late scanners haven't aided local officers in solving any crimes thus far. "We haven't really done anything with it," Orzech said. "It's really hit or miss."
•The devices don't perform certain functions that were promised.
Case in point: The devices don't connect to a state system that law enforcement officers use to look up crime and court records. The pitfalls of the technology actually convinced Erie County Sheriff Paul Sigsworth to remove four similar cameras that were previously placed on cruisers at his department.
The sheriff's employees removed the mounted cameras and asked federal officials to pick up the equipment about a year ago.
"They're still here, in the boxes, waiting to be picked up," Sigsworth said.
The American Civil Liberties Union was first to address this issue of the federal government funding license plate readers. In a report issued earlier this month, "You are being tracked," the civil rights group called it a dangerous trend in American cities.
“More and more cameras, longer retention periods, and widespread sharing allow law enforcement agents to assemble the individual puzzle pieces of where we have been over time into a single, high-resolution image of our lives,” the report states. “The knowledge that one is subject to constant monitoring can chill the exercise of our cherished rights to free speech and association.”
On Monday, after reading the Register story, local residents showed up at City Hall to lambast the federal government's monitoring program and its implications locally, too.
"I am one of the community members who feel uncomfortable with this," Mills Street resident Dan Leavell said. "I feel that law enforcement has plenty of tools in their arsenal in order to apprehend someone who is breaking the law. I see this as another step in the invasion of an individual's privacy."
Orzech said he will remove the cameras if people don't want them.
"If you want them off the car, we'll take them off," Orzech said. "It doesn't make a difference to me."
Count Fifth Street resident Sharon Johnson among the people demanding officials remove the cameras.
"If Erie County dismantled their readers, I don't see why Sandusky can't dismantle them too," Johnson said. "We are getting too complacent about our privacy."
Helpful or harmful?
Commissioner Keith Grohe spoke in favor of the cameras.
"If you have a (smartphone), that same information goes all over the place," Grohe said. "Also with Twitter, Facebook, where you shop if you have a debit or credit card. You have to admit that in today's world we are tracked all over the place."
Cole slammed Grohe's opinion.
"That's all by choice," Cole said. "Whether I have a smartphone or use my Kroger Card is my choice. Whether (police) use a car and scan my tag is not my choice."
Smith then argued with Cole, pointing out that license plates and the streets people drive on are public.
Cole quickly countered the point.
"My concern is what information is public," Cole said. "If you visit a particular doctor and then go to Sunday school and then a political rally at night and then visit a particular bank or mosque, all of those data points can be collected and assembled into a virtual blueprint of your life.
"I would like to know if there is a way that we can reasonably come up with an analysis of how valuable this technology is to us," Cole said.
City commissioner Wes Poole said he's not overly worried about the cameras, but he's concerned that city officials — namely city manager Nicole Ard — failed to inform him of what the cameras can do.
"I do have some concerns about staff presenting information to us," Poole said. "You left me with the impression you would be obtaining a tool that was going to be a value to the city. When you don't have the information and I have to make a decision, I must then live with the unintended consequences."
City commissioners said they'll continue to discuss the status of the cameras at upcoming public meetings.
The Register asked some of its Facebook friends for their opinions on the two cameras mounted on a Sandusky police cruiser. The cameras are capable of scanning a license plate number and sending information on a motorist's whereabouts to the federal government:
• Sandee Micheletti: Not a criminal, so it's fine by me.
• Janice Rogers Parker: I don't feel they should.
• Connie Slaughter: I don't think it's right. What is the reason for this? I'm not a criminal.
• Josephine Horne: I think it's wrong. Just like the government listening to our calls.
• Mike Lugtig: They already have our address. That's good enough. I mean, let's just line up so they can put a GPS in all of us.
• Andy Bauman: Criminal or not, you are entitled to a level of privacy inherent in the Fourth Amendment. This isn't a matter of whether you or I are criminals but that those in authoritative positions are unashamedly committing criminal acts.
• Chuck Miller: We no longer live in a free country. Canada here I come.
• DeeJay Graves: Complete invasion of privacy and overstepping of boundaries.
• Brandi Jurek: It's wrong.
• Kelly Groves Scott: Doesn't bother me even the teeniest, tiniest bit.
• Kari Miller: No. Only if they were on the lookout for a specific person should this be enabled. For example, searching for a runway or escaped (person). But once that technology is there, I'm sure the government would use it.
• Matt Keegan: What does the federal government need to know about my whereabouts for? Why are public servants paid by my tax dollars given the OK to do this? This is not OK.
• Jason Lutz: I got nothing to hide, but I still don't think ti's right that the government knows what I'm doing all the time. They should have better things to do than know I'm at Walmart and going to smash on some Red Lobster for dinner.
• Joe Artino: Doesn't matter. Look at Google Earth. You think that's the only satellite photos or videos being taken of us? I don't think so. So (the cameras on) the back of an SPD car is minor compared to what else is going on we don't even know about.
• Tim Smith: I love my country but fear my government.
• Kelly Netherland Gillespie: It shouldn't matter if you have anything to hide or not. IT is a totally unnecessary invasion of privacy, and it' sonly going to get worse. Did we forget they are public officials meant to serve the public? Why are we so willing to give up our liberties?