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Spokane’s ‘drone’ ordinance tested

Spokane’s parking enforcement operation got another technological upgrade last month, when a Ford Focus equipped with a digital license plate reader started prowling the streets looking for parking scofflaws.

Next Monday, the Spokane City Council will consider belatedly approving the technology, which is required of all surveillance technology purchased by city agencies.

“This is the first example of the drone ordinance being effective,” Council President Ben Stuckart said of a law he pushed last year. The law, which faced stiff opposition from civil rights groups for not being strong enough, requires the council to approve “surveillance equipment … prior to acquisition.”

That didn’t exactly happen. The license plate recognition technology was rolled out during a news event at City Hall in early July. Stuckart said he noticed the surveillance-equipped Ford Focus outside City Hall and emailed Jan Quintrall, the head of the city’s Developer and Business Services, questioning why the council wasn’t informed.

“I got a response within two minutes,” he said, noting that it was the first test of the law and city staff may have forgotten about the requirement for approval.

Brian Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman, said the technology was only being tested over the last several weeks and its first real use came last week, when an SUV with more than $4,000 in tickets and fines was found with the sensor outside of the Spokane County Courthouse and immobilized with a “boot.” The owner of the vehicle paid his fines and his vehicle was freed.

The Ford Focus cost $16,000 and the city might purchase a second vehicle if the program is successful, said Dave Steele, a city planner.

The reader vehicle only will patrol streets that have parking meters, Coddington said. The reader will be used for a number of reasons, including identifying vehicles with four or more citations and stolen cars. It also will be able to note the position of tire valve stems and identify meter feeders who have left their vehicles in spots longer than allotted parking times allow.

The technology will record the license plate number, the vehicle’s location and time of day, and can store the information for up to 48 hours. According to the council’s resolution, the information will be shared with the police department only if the vehicles are “identified as stolen or otherwise wanted” by police.

The police department already uses similar technology, checking the data it captures against a statewide database of stolen or wanted vehicles. Unlike parking enforcement, the police department keeps the data.

Stuckart said he was pleased with the plan to not keep the parking data for a significant amount of time.

“I didn’t want that data being stored,” he said. “The reason we passed the drone ordinance was to alleviate concerns people may have had about this technology. Well, now we’re openly discussing it in the public. We’re bringing it out in the open.”

Staff writer Mike Prager contributed to this report.