BALANCING SAFETY, LIBERTY: In the little town of Ashland, more than Eric Cantor’s defeat by local professor Dave Brat makes it unique.
By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau
When you turn off Interstate 95 and enter the quiet downtown of Ashland, Va., with a quaint coffee house, a small-town grocer, and a little library nestled snuggly against a picturesque railroad track, the town slogan “center of the universe” posted on the sign in the middle of the road might make you blink.
Recent events, however, are making that claim seem a little less far-fetched.
The town of 7,000 residents just 15 miles north of Richmond is now practically a household name in politics after Dave Brat, a little-known economics professor at Ashland’s 1,300-student Randolph-Macon College took down U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a shocking primary show. Brat’s Democratic opposition for the 7th House District election in November will come from a fellow Randolph-Macon professor, Jack Trammell.
The concern of that Ashland Town Council for personal liberty and privacy, and that town police chief’s prioritization of transparency, mean Ashland now has one of the strictest data retention policies in the state when it comes to the use of automatic license plate readers.
They’re not retaining the data at all.
When Ashland Chief of Police Douglas Goodman, Jr., asked the Town Council whether it would be comfortable using newly acquired automatic license plate reader technology to retain information for 24 hours or not at all, the council’s decision was swift and simple.
“It’s an opportunity to collect data on people that honestly really isn’t our business to collect,” Ashland Mayor Faye Prichard told Watchdog.org. “If you committed a crime or potentially committed a crime, we are certainly out investigating you. But collecting data because you might potentially maybe in the future commit a crime, that’s not something that we’re doing. Even for 24 hours, it rides a really gray line getting into other people’s privacy. And I think we can do our job without doing that.
“It’s more than likely not going to hurt anybody if we kept the data, but I think we’re all uncomfortable with the precedent that it sets and the sort of big brother state.”
With the council’s go ahead last month, the Ashland Police Department installed cameras on two of its 25 police vehicles. Not even the police officer in the patrol car, however, can see the plate information unless it matches a license plate number linked with a serious crime.
“The license plate reader captures the data, compares it to the (wanted vehicles hot) list, and as soon as it determines it’s not on this list, that data’s purged. Immediately,” Goodman told Watchdog.org. “It doesn’t even reside on the laptop, because it’s purged.
“The tool is out there searching for vehicles that are stolen or associated with wanted fugitives or an amber alert or terrorist watch list, those big-ticket items that are a threat to the community, that’s what it’s looking for now,” Goodman said. “That’s the only thing we’re using it to look for.”
Ashland’s retention policy is even stricter than the Virginia State Police’s self-imposed 24-hour rule, making Ashland one of the few local law enforcement agencies to follow then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s legal opinion that capturing and storing data without a warrant is illegal. Local agencies have retention policies ranging from 30 days to two years to none at all. Roanoke also immediately purges ALPR-generated data.
The Police Executive Research Forum says more than two-thirds of police departments surveyed in the United States were using ALPR technology in some form, and most retain that data for at least some period.
Ashland’s decision came after a year of conversations with Goodman, who first approached members of the Town Council when he applied last summer for a state grant to make technology upgrades that hadn’t happened since the beginning of the Great Recession. Goodman, knowing the council wanted a narrow scope of the use of ALPRs, and taking the attorney general’s opinion seriously, didn’t consider a retention period longer than 24 hours.
“I believe in transparency in government from top to bottom,” Goodman said. “Of course in law enforcement there are some things we have to maintain confidential, and we have to protect certain things, just because whether it be legal or the moral and right thing to do. With the LPR issue, we knew that going into that it was going to be a sensitive topic.”
The Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the Town Council praising its action.
“As the town of Ashland recognized, Virginians do not need to give up their liberty to secure their safety,” ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga said in the letter. “The town’s decision reaffirms the basic American principle that important policy decisions affecting the rights and liberty of the people should be made in a transparent and open process that includes their voices. We are hopeful that the town’s action will serve as a model for good governance throughout the commonwealth.”
At the time of the decision, Councilman Edward Henson said it would be like “our own little miniature NSA operation if we retain the data.” Councilman James Foley called data retention a “very slippery slope.”
“It’s perfectly OK for me if officers are given a tool that says OK, there’s a wanted vehicle,” Vice Mayor George Spagna told Watchdog.org. “This gives me a way to identify it. But to simply randomly accumulate data on where people are going and what they’re doing, it makes me uncomfortable, and I said so.
“It’s what I refer to as the rise of the surveillance state,” Spagna said. “We’re seeing this with the NSA. We’re seeing this with Google, Facebook. If you look at an ad online, the next thing you know, you’ve got 14 ads for similar things coming up on your Facebook page. And that kind of data mining just, it strikes me as an invasion of privacy, and I would just assume it didn’t happen.”
Technology available to law enforcement is constantly and rapidly changing. As Delegate Richard Anderson, R-District 51, who is pushing for some sort of state restrictions on ALPRs, said earlier this year, “technology expands so fast that it always stays in front of the rule set.”
But Ashland’s Police Department and Town Council proved that doesn’t have to be the case.
— Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter with Watchdog.org’s Virginia bureau, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @kathrynw5.