Florida community seeks license plate cams

Without a gate or guards, the upscale community Colonnade is looking to technology to make its city streets and homes safe.

Residents want cameras that capture license plate numbers and send them through local, state and Department of Homeland Security databases. It is the first proposal from a Boca Raton community to use crime-fighting technology that taps into the Police Department.

But an agreement between the community and city officials has stalled over liability. Though police are pursuing a video surveillance system for the city, the Colonnade's effort is tricky because it involves a private community. Community leaders say the technology would provide police valuable intelligence and would be treated no different than a 911 call.

"If there is an event the police are interested in, then they could come right away and deal with it," said Margaret Cohen, a member of the Colonnade's board.

While post-Sept. 11 debates focus on privacy with multiplying surveillance systems, the proposal at the Colonnade brings a different set of questions. The community is embracing Big Brother and submitted a petition of 131 residents in support of the license plate recognition technology.

Would the Colonnade get preferential treatment? What would happen if the system doesn't pick up on a criminal; or police don't arrive in time? The city wants the community to agree to not hold it liable for "negligence, recklessness or intentional wrongful misconduct."

"In my mind, it seems pretty reasonable," said Councilman Bill Hager, who, as an attorney, called the liability risks to the city great. "The city has offered to be of help if the neighborhood agrees to help us in the event of a neighbor suing the city."

The Colonnade submitted its agreement to the city almost a year ago. It would cost the community about $45,000 for the license plate technology - far less than the $300,000 a year to became gated. Most of the Colonnade's crimes are vehicle burglaries and home break-ins, said Cohen, whose home was robbed of $80,000 worth of valuables a few years ago.

The city is, in general, supportive of technology to help police battle criminals, said George Brown, deputy city manager. But the license plate technology is not as expansive as video surveillance cameras the city is exploring for government buildings and some private property.

"We want to make sure we do it the right way," said Police Chief Dan Alexander. "We don't have the resources nor the inclination to watch everybody all the time."

In the affluent enclave Manalapan, police have been using similar license plate technology for almost five years. The $30,000 to purchase and set it up came from the town's budget. The initial intent was to help officers solve crimes, said Police Chief Clay Walker.

But hits on license plates went into dispatch and officers were soon sent to investigate. Within days of getting the system, police cracked a stolen vehicle ring from New Hampshire.

"It real quickly showed us this stuff is pretty impressive," Walker said. "If I've got a community that is going to provide me that resource, I'm going to take advantage. Maybe I'm more of a risk-taker."

The Colonnade has no plans to give up its pursuit of the technology and an agreement with the city, though Councilman Hager said: "I think the ball is really in the neighborhood's court."