WSP photographing license plates at Bainbridge, Seattle ferry terminals | UPDATED

The Washington State Patrol has begun running criminal checks on the license plate numbers of all vehicles boarding ferries on Bainbridge and at Seattle’s Colman Dock, as it tests a new security system.

A trial run for an Automatic License Plate Recognition System began at 8 a.m. Wednesday, according to WSP Sgt. Trent Cain. The ALPRS system uses digital cameras to photograph the license plate of each vehicle as it pulls away from the terminal toll booth. The license plate numbers are then digitized and checked against four FBI criminal databases.

A computer will automatically flag a vehicle if it has been reported stolen, if it is listed in an AMBER Alert, if someone associated with the vehicle is wanted for a felony crime, or if the license plate is associated with a suspected terrorist.

If a vehicle matches any of those criteria, an alarm is sounded at a WSP command center in Seattle, and a trooper is dispatched to verify the plate number, and investigate the vehicle. In an alert at the Bainbridge terminal, a trooper would be dispatched through WSP’s Bremerton office. As of Thursday evening, no vehicles had been flagged by the new system.

The cameras are capable of photographing at night and when vehicles are traveling at high speeds, Cain said.

“It’s adding another layer of security to our Washington State Ferries,” Cain said.

According to a WSP press release all license plate photos will be stored for 60 days, then deleted from the system. Cain said WSP is required to store the numbers for a period of time to meet public accountability policy for video surveillance.

Vehicle occupants are not photographed and the information of registered owners will not be stored, according to the release.

Cain said the Seattle and Bainbridge ferry terminals were chosen for testing the technology because of their high volumes of traffic.

The ALPR pilot project is being administered through WSP’s Homeland Security Division. The system cost slightly under $250,000 and was funded through a federal buffer zone grant.

WSP may seek funding to install the ALPR system at other Washington State Ferries terminals if the Bainbridge and Seattle testing is successful.

“We want to be a fiscally responsible as an agency,” Cain said. “We want to see what it produces for us first.”

Since ferries to Bremerton also leave Colman Dock, Bremerton’s terminal would likely be next to receive the technology, Cain said.

Doug Honig, spokesperson for American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said staff in his office had discussed the ALPRS system being used at ferry terminals.

He said his group has no problem with the camera system being used for flagging stolen vehicles, potential child abductors and wanted felons. It is concerned about flagging vehicles based on federal terrorist watch-lists, because the ACLU believes those lists are often erroneous, Honig said.

His group is also concerned that license plate information will be stored for two months, even if the vehicle is not flagged for criminal activity, Honig said.

Going forward, Honig said, citizens should be wary of how the security tool is used.

“Many government programs that start out on a very small scale, for very laudable aims, end up being expanded down the road and become problems for people’s privacy,” he said.

Several drivers in line for a Thursday afternoon ferry to Seattle said they hadn’t heard of the new security system, but said they thought the measure sounded reasonable, as long as the system wasn’t abused.

“If your car gets stolen, it could help you get your car back,” said Jim Haskin of Poulsbo. The camera system did not seem particularly invasive, he said, considering license plates are public records.

Russell Seales said he was glad to see heightened security at the terminal.

“I’m retired military, so I figure they have to do what they have to do,” Seales said. “It’s not like we’re getting stripped searched to get on the ferry.”

Cain said he did not know of other uses of the ALPR system by WSP.

A similar camera system, also paid for with a federal grant, was installed on Interstate 90 in Kootenai County, Idaho, in late 2006. Eight cameras monitor the license plates of vehicles traveling both east and west on I-90, and check them against criminal databases.

Post Falls Police Lt. Greg McLean said the system has flagged approximately 18 vehicles and license plates stolen in Idaho, in the 18 months the system has been in operation.

He said the system is also set to monitor databases in Washington and Montana, and usually gives about three alerts daily for out-of-state vehicles. Officers in Idaho alert departments in neighboring states of vehicles passing through that have been flagged by the system.

McLean said officers can also program in license plate numbers for suspect vehicles, and be alerted by the system if the vehicle passes its cameras on I-90.

Overall, the cameras has been very useful, McLean said.

“It’s been very beneficial,” McLean said. “It’s really an amazing system.”

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