U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, says that local police departments have to balance privacy rights with public safety as they decide what to do when they’re offered license plate readers by the Department of Homeland Security.
On Monday, the Sandusky Register wrote to Brown, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman and U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur. The letter, noting that the Register has written about DHS grants providing license plate readers for the Sandusky Police Department and Erie County Sheriff’s Office, asked for help in obtaining information about the program and asked if the lawmakers had any comment.
Brown responded with a statement.
“It is critical that we balance living in a safe society with protecting our right to privacy. That requires local communities being able to have open and honest debates about the best way to achieve that balance, including the appropriate use of surveillance systems. I will continue to monitor this issue to ensure Ohioans have both safety and privacy,” Brown said.
Portman’s staff said the senator had no comment yet. Kaptur’s office didn’t respond to the letter.
The Sandusky Register reported on July 21 that the Sandusky Police Department had mounted a DHS license plate reader on one cruiser, which transmits data on license plates to DHS. Police Chief John Orzech said he has kept the reader in case it turns up information that will be useful.
Erie County Sheriff Paul Sigsworth said his department installed several license plate cameras on its units but then removed them after deciding they didn’t provide any help to the department. They weren’t connected to the LEADS system the department uses to find wanted fugitives, Sigsworth said.
Ottawa County Sheriff Steve Levorchick said his office received two license plate readers, too. One was installed about a year ago but another was not installed.
“Since seeing your article, you guys’ article in the Sandusky Register … I have told my vehicle maintenance people to remove that one (that was installed). I’m not going to be party to information sharing that we’re not aware of. We were never made aware of that when those pieces of equipment were received, which was prior to my taking office,” he said.
Chief Deputy Bruce Hirt of the Sandusky County Sheriff’s Office said his agency installed two DHS license plate readers earlier this year and are still evaluating if they are useful.
They are supposed to be able to alert deputies if a car has a stolen license plate. They also have alerted in some cases to outstanding warrants, Hirt said.
Huron County’s sheriff, Dane A. Howard, said he’s received the devices also but has suspended using them until he can get some questions answered.
“I have recently suspended the use of these devices until further notice. Given the recent speculation concerning the final destination of the information received by those devices, I do not feel it is warranted to carry on with this practice,” he said in a statement released to the Register. “I will be contacting our county prosecutor, as well as the Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association, for advice as to their future use, which at this time seems very unlikely.”
“Initially when we received these devices from the state we felt that they would assist in apprehending wanted criminals. However, we have to maintain public trust and an objective outlook until we are certain where the information goes. We are not here to invade citizens’ privacy, we are here to protect them,” the sheriff said.
Perkins police chief Ken Klamar and Huron police chief Bob Lippert both said their departments had not received grants for license plate readers.
“And I haven’t asked for them,” Lippert added.