Big Brother is Watching You

South Salt Lake Police are Recording License Plates and Sending Postcards Home to Park Visitors. A Plea for Help or Tattling on Cruisers?

Every time he or his roommate goes to the park on 3148 S 1100 W, a South Salt Lake City resident says they get a card from the police department detailing the time of their visit and their car’s license plate number. And after receiving two of the cards in less than a month, the resident says he’s beginning to feel harassed. 

“On March 12 I got another card in the mail from the South Salt Lake Police thanking us for visiting the park,” said the resident, who asked QSaltLake to remain anonymous. “At what point does it become harassment?”

The card, which QSaltLake obtained, is sent from the city’s Safe Parks Project, a program formed, according to its Web site, “to take a proactive approach to reducing criminal activity in our city parks, and to work with the community to gather information about suspicious activity.” As part of this program, the Web site description continues, the South Salt Lake City police department has upped its patrols in the city’s parks.

The card, which the resident also received on Feb. 29, is addressed only to “Registered Owner” with the street address filled in by hand. The back lists a handwritten license plate number, date and time of visit, and the address of the park visited.

The printed text of the post card reads in part:

“Thank you for visiting one of our many city parks. In an effort to make the parks an enjoyable experience for you and other visitors, we encourage and appreciate any input you may have in keeping the parks clean and safe. In the past we have experienced problems with crime in the parks (i.e. – lewdness, exhibitionism, assault, drug use and possession). We are asking for your help to keep the parks of South Salt Lake City crime free and eliminate these ongoing problems.”

The card then lists the address and phone number of the city’s police department.

“We put those cards out just to let people know we’re around the area and are keeping an eye on the place,” said Gary Keller, a public information officer with the South Salt Lake City police department, who added that he had received only one complaint about the cards in the past. “Most people see it and think that’s great, but other people I guess have issue with it for whatever reason. Makes me wonder why they have issue with it.”

The resident said he has an issue with the card because his roommate wasn’t doing anything illegal and should not be made to feel he is under surveillance.

“He doesn't cruise the parks [looking for sex] … he is out there most every weekend to walk the dog and get exercise,” he said. “Maybe they've seen his car out there so often that they've decided that he is a nefarious menace to society."

The resident also said he thinks the police department is using the cards not for public awareness but for intimidation – and intimidation specifically targeted towards gay men.

“This stinks of BYU collecting license plate numbers from the Sun [a local gay bar] back in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” he said, referring to the Mormon-owned school’s attempts to ferret out gay students for breaking the school’s honor code, which forbids gay sex.

“Addressing the card to "Registered Owner" is an obvious attempt to get someone other than the registered owner of the vehicle to read the card,” he continued. “There's less of a chance of a partner, spouse or child reading the card if they put the name of the registered owner on the card.  I know if I had gotten the mail first and saw [my roommate’s] name on the car I wouldn't have read it.”

The fact that a spouse or child could read the card, he concluded, could identify people visiting the parks as “potential suspects” and cause “unnecessary and unwarranted problems at home.” To illustrate his point, the resident mentioned a man he and his roommate often see feeding the birds at the park.

“Did he get a card like this?” the resident asked. “How does he explain this to his wife, though? Will she be thrilled to know that he's been hanging out with sex fiends and drug dealers?”

Keller said that the card was not intended to cause family problems or to intimidate people.

“It’s not our intent to cause suspicion,” he said.

He did say, however, that addressing the cards to “Registered Owner” had caused some confusion in the past.

“Some people think, ‘I wasn’t at the park,’ and it turns out that a family member went [using their car],” he said.

Keller said that the cards’ purpose is purely to help fight crime.

“People look at that [the card] and they think Big Brother is always watching them, but certainly this is a very useful invest tool,” he said. “If we do have crimes we know who was in area at time so we can contact them to see if they heard anything.”

The fact that such a data base for the cards exists in the first place and includes license plate numbers, the resident said, leads him to believe that the cards are anything but that.

“I could start with freedom of assembly or even the idea that public parks are just that: open to the public,” he said. “Innocent until proven guilty, as it were.”

“We just notify the registered owner to get information on the parks and what not,” said Keller. “Certainly, this has been scruitinized by our city attorneys and there’s no real expectation of privacy that we violated by copying the plate numbers and sending the cards out.”

Along with South Salt Lake City attorneys Keller also said that the Safe Parks Program its accompanying postcards had been scrutinized by several groups, including resident input, the Salt Lake Drug Free Youth Coalition and the GLBTQ Public Safety Committee, which was formed in 2000 to addres public safety issues effecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents.

Captain Kyle Jones, a Salt Lake City officer who sits on the GLBTQ Public Safety Committee said that he didn’t know much about the postcards, as they are being sent out in a jurisdiction other than his own.

“But sending cards to someone in a park asking for their help… there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said.

Jones also said that the Public Safety Committee was formed in part to address public sexual activity “that all parks are dealing with.”

“I don’t know if that’s the issue the South Salt Lake Parks are dealing with, but we put together a treatment program for people arrested for public sex in parks,” he said. Called Healthy Self Expressions, this group provides people caught having public sex with group and individual counseling. According to Jones, fewer than five percent of those who go through the program are rearrested.

The South Salt Lake Resident, however, said he and his roommate have a hard time believing what the police say about the cards, given the detail they go into about public lewdness.

“They went into such detail on the problems they’re having,” he said. “Lewdness, exposure. Do they need to list both of those? To me that’s pushing bounds.”

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