TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. (AP) — Tybee Island officials agreed unanimously Monday to retreat from plans to install machines designed to scan and record the license plates of every car and truck coming onto the island, an idea that was met with hostile emails from people fearing Big Brother would be monitoring beach vacations.
It took the small coastal community’s City Council just 10 minutes to reverse a decision it made less than three weeks ago to spend nearly $29,000 on computer-linked cameras to scan car tags on the only road linking Georgia’s largest public beach to the mainland.
“If the whole purpose was to track tourism and ultimately bring more tourists here, but it was turning people away, then that’s counter-productive,” said Mayor Jason Buelterman.
Officials on the beach getaway of 3,100 residents about 18 miles east of Savannah had said they wanted the license-plate scanners to help them gather how many cars were coming onto the island, precisely when they arrived and whether they stayed for a few days or a few hours. They also wanted to use the tag data to see where visitors were coming from by state and county.
Buelterman said Monday city officials had learned the scanners they planned to buy wouldn’t automatically count vehicles or analyze tag numbers to tell where vehicles were registered. Backlash from residents and potential tourists played a role, he said, noting that he had personally received about 100 emails about the scanners with most of them opposed to the idea.
Officials insisted they weren’t trying to spy on visitors, but wanted the license plate information for a tourism study to help the island focus its marketing efforts. Buelterman said precise data on how many cars were coming from out of town would have helped win state and federal grants for beach maintenance projects such as replenishing sand washed away by erosion.
The City Council was scheduled Dec. 12 to consider guidelines for letting Tybee Island’s small police force use the license plate scanners. In many U.S. cities, police use the scanners to look for cars registered to people with arrest warrants, track suspected drug dealers or search for vehicles linked to child abductions.
The American Civil Liberties Union said in a July report based on information from hundreds of U.S. law enforcement agencies that scanners nationwide now capture and store information on millions of vehicles, most belonging to Americans suspected of no wrongdoing. The ACLU says dropping costs have helped spread made the technology to smaller cities. Still, Tybee Island seemed like an unusual candidate considering it has so little crime. Tybee Island police reported four violent crimes, all aggravated assaults, last year and zero violent crimes in 2011, according to local crime statistics reported to the FBI.
Tybee Island Police Chief Robert Bryson said the scanners would have helped catch criminals from neighboring Savannah, which has a much higher crime rate.
“It would have been a useful tool,” Bryson said. “But to live without it is no problem.”
After ruling out the tag scanners, Tybee officials agreed to look into spending about $7,000 on a device that’s buried under the road and simply counts cars without collecting any license plate information.
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