MICHIGAN CITY — An ordinance to allow the Michigan City Police Department to purchase license plate reader technology, including facial recognition capability, was killed Tuesday after several concerned citizens spoke against it during a public hearing.
Only one of the 18 people who spoke at the City Council meeting was in favor of the scanners, while a few others wanted more information.
But the majority explicitly opposed the purchase of the cameras, which they characterized as “a waste of money,” “lazy policing,” “an invasion of privacy,” “dangerous surveillance” and “an infringement on the Fourth Amendment.”
Many raised concerns that the technology would be used to target specific people and neighborhoods, and to profile and harass people of color.
Amy Straka of Organized and United Residents of Michigan City (OURMC) read a list of some of the instances in which law enforcement agencies were found to have used such technology illegally or inappropriately, including a department in New York that targeted vehicles parked outside mosques.
“It scares the hell out of me,” said Wes Scully, president of the NAACP of La Porte County. “I’m just going to tell you like it is – we don’t need it.”
Local resident Jose Segovia said the potential benefits listed by Police Chief Mark Swistek at the council’s July 2 meeting weren’t enough to warrant scanning all vehicles. He surmised that instead of solving murders and other violent crimes, police would use the cameras to arrest people for nonviolent crimes, such as driving while suspended.
“You’re shark fishing, but you’re going to catch a thousand smelt,” Segovia said.
MCPD Chief of Operations Royce Williams said license plate reader technology assisted the city of Hammond in having had no reported murders during the first six months of the year. He compared Hammond to Gary, where they do not use the technology and had 28 murders during the same time period.
According to Williams, the technology helps police in Hammond arrest suspects in high-profile crimes, as well as during routine traffic stops, thus preventing people from committing worse crimes.
But Brett Short, a former Lake County resident, refuted the notion that arresting more people lowers the crime rate.
Vince Emanuele, co-founder of the PARC Community Center, agreed: “It is egregious to suggest that the reason crimes are being committed in Gary is because they don’t have this technology.”
Paul Przybylinski, a former councilman and current candidate, said the readers remind him of George Orwell’s “1984.” He didn’t explicitly oppose the technology, but asked that the council provide direction for the MCPD on how it should be used before approving the purchase.
Sergio Kochergin, co-founder of PARC, took it a step further and demanded a civilian oversight board be created.
Councilman Bryant Dabney asked Williams if the MCPD would be willing to meet with him and any members of the public who would want to attend to better explain how the technology might benefit Michigan City, and to assure people it would not be used to harass segments of the community.
Williams said the MCPD would “absolutely” be willing to attend such a meeting.
Councilwoman Sharon Carnes expressed her own skepticism over how such technology might be used, and questioned the MCPD’s policies regarding the access, retention and purging of the collected data.
Williams said no such policies exist because the department hasn’t needed them without having the scanners.
Carnes asked that the request for the license plate reader technology be dropped from the ordinance in which the MCPD also requested a new narcotics testing system, and the council voted 8-0 in favor of her amendment.
So, while the ordinance requesting the TruNarc Handheld Narcotics Analyzer will be up for vote after third reading at the council’s Aug. 6 meeting, the MCPD’s request for license plate scanners is “dead,” according to Council president Don Przybylinski.
Przybylinski and Councilman Gene Simmons sponsored the original ordinance requesting both pieces of equipment.
A member of the audience asked Simmons, a former police chief, his thoughts on the technology.
He said he supported it initially, but was reconsidering after listening to the concerns raised by the public.
Councilman Tim Bietry clarified that in order for license plate reader technology to be brought before the council again, a new ordinance would need to be drafted.