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Police chief makes case for license plate reader, extra officers

New Canaan Police Chief Leon Krolikowski urged the Town Council March 26 to approve his department's 2014-15 budget, which would include a license-plate reader and the hiring of two new officers.

Despite privacy concerns, Krolikowski is confident the council would approve the license-plate reader this year, he said after the meeting. The machine, which would cost $20,000, has driven criticism in the past for potentially storing data on innocent drivers.

With the two new hires the department is requesting, one current officer would become a school resource officer at Saxe Middle School.

In January and March, respectively, the boards of Selectmen and Finance approved the department's $5.6 million operating budget as requested, which represents a 0.36 percent increase over fiscal year 2013-14. As for capital expenses, the Board of Finance recommended a $734,200 budget for the department, but $555,000 of that would be bonded and $20,000 would be taken from the town's capital non-recurring fund.

The Town Council will vote on a final budget Wednesday, April 9. Last year, the council did not agree to fund the plate reader.

Scanning plates

The devices are mounted on the front and back of police cars and instantly read and record the license plates of passing vehicles. If the numbers match a plate belonging to someone with an expired registration or an arrest warrant, for instance, the reader alerts the officer.

"It's not just a simple tool that's going to read your license plate," Krolikowski said. "Every year, we have many domestic violence victims that are given criminal protective orders, which prohibits the offenders to come into the residences. With this license-plate reader, we could set up an electronic fence around this victim's house ... so if an officer on patrol was (in the area), and the offender was driving nearby, it would alert the officer."

What has caused some controversy across the state, however, is the length of time that law enforcement agencies could retain license plate information. Some police departments in Connecticut hang on to the data for five years or more, he said. But opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, have called such retention time a threat to constitutional freedoms.

At a March 4 hearing of the state's Public Safety and Security Committee, David McGuire, an attorney for the ACLU, said he understands how the system can be "a powerful tool for law enforcement," but he said he's concerned with the privacy of innocent citizens, according a testimony posted on the ACLU website.

"The trouble arises when license-plate scan data is collected, pooled and archived for months or years, storing a detailed and vivid picture of the movements of drivers who are not even suspected of doing anything wrong," McGuire said at the hearing. "From these ever-growing databases it's easy to reconstruct an individual's movements or to identify the vehicles that visit a particular location, such as a church, mosque, adult bookstore or motel. This opens the door to retroactive surveillance of innocent people without a warrant, without probable cause and without any form of judicial oversight."

Retention period

McGuire asked the committee to require a 14-day retention period, unless there is a crime, which is exactly what the New Canaan Police Department is proposing.

Though he told the Town Council the data retention period in New Canaan would be 30 days, Krolikowski said the department has decided to reduce it to two weeks. Read Full Article 

"We respect privacy concerns. There's no question about it," Krolikowski said. "If there is a crime, and we believe that's useful, we'll set that data aside as evidence and use it for that purpose."

The use of license plate readers has spiked over the past few years. Darien has had two of them for about three years and Wilton recently purchased one. Krolikowski said virtually every town in Fairfield County has at least one.

State police have a 90-day retention period.

Krolikowski said a draft policy would be available in about a month.

The plate reader, however, is definitely much less expensive than another request the chief has made. Each of the two new officers would cost the town about $114,000, including salary and benefits.

Overtime

Krolikowski is hoping the new hires would help the department reduce overtime costs while increasing security in town. He said he's predicting about $411,000 in overtime costs when the 2013-14 fiscal year ends in June, which is more than $100,000 over budget.

In 2012-13, overtime pay cost the department $485,751. With two more officers, he forecasts overtime to cost $304,000 in 2014-15.

Councilman Joe Paladino said he feels that the council would like to see bigger overtime savings with the new hires.

"For us to feel good about having two more officers, we would certainly like to see a reduction in overtime," Paladino said. "If these officers are added and we do not see a decrease, it's probably unlikely that we would keep the 47."

Krolikowski said the savings might not be immediately realized because of the time it takes to train new officers.

New officers

When the department hires an entry-level officer, it has to wait more than a year for the new officer to be ready to work. Usually, he said, it takes from six to eight months to recruit and test a new officer.

"That's if we can get a slot in the police academy, which is very often difficult," Krolikowski said. "After he's done with police academy, he goes to field training for three months. So we're talking close to 18 months before an officer is operational."

Given the long time that it takes for an officer to be operational, the department is looking into hiring certified officers, who would be ready to work after a four-week in-house training, Krolikowski said.

The department has 45 officers, but only 39 of them are currently active.

"We don't always have 45 officers, and that's a result of injuries, a result of an officer being at the academy," officers on vacation, among other reasons, Krolikowski said.

Krolikowski said he's trying to plan ahead, given that there are nine officers who are currently eligible for retirement. He noted that the department usually doesn't get enough notice before an officer retires.

With an additional officer, the department would assign a person as a school resource officer for Saxe Middle School.

"The SRO, as you all know, at the high school has been very successful," he said. "We're seeing a lot of things happening at Saxe, in that age group, that we don't like to see and we believe that the SRO at Saxe would intervene in that."

Krolikowski said the SRO would add security to the school, as well as be a mentor and work on substance abuse awareness. He said he hopes the officer would also help reduce risk behaviors. However, the most important benefit of an SRO, Krolikowski said, is increased security at the schools.

"Having a well-trained armed officer at the school, response time is seconds versus many minutes if something were to happen," he said.

The SRO would not be a new officer. Rather, the department would choose one of its current officers who have specialized skills and "really wants to be an SRO," Krolikowski said.

Staffing

Councilman Stephen Karl asked Krolikowski why he wasn't asking for one additional officer at a time. He noted that the department's capital budget request includes a $20,000 line for a scheduling software, which would help police manage overtime hours more effectively.

"Some of the old-timers who are conservative in town are pointing to why add two rather than just start with one," Karl said. "Given the software package that's out there, could we take that data, analyze it and go back after it?"

Krolikowski said the staff is at "a critical level." He said New Canaan has seen crimes that didn't use to happen before, such as the jewelry store robbery in November and the RadioShack theft this month. At the same time, he said, the department often operates below the minimal manning requirements.

"Frankly, we don't have enough manning," he said. "On an average month, we're only operating at about 60 percent of minimal manning level, which isn't ideal."

Town Council Chairman Bill Walbert said officers' safety is an important part of the budget.

"It's easy for us to focus on the dollars because it's very quantifiable and it's right in front of us," Walbert said. "But the other major element here is officers' safety."

noliveira@bcnnew.com, 203-330-6582, @olivnelson

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