High-tech cameras eye Hudson Valley motorists
GalleriesIrvington Police scan plates
With July 4 festivities in full swing, police throughout the Hudson Valley will be relying more than ever on vehicle-tracking cameras to nab lawbreakers -- and even terror suspects. But although law enforcement is clamoring for more of the high-tech gadgets, some motorists aren't that revved up about being tracked.
"Isn't that kind of an invasion of privacy?" asked Vicki Clemente, 61, of Yonkers. "I don't think it's really nice."
As many as 200 license plate readers -- known as LPRs -- are operating in Westchester County alone, with plans to acquire more throughout the region as both a basic policing tool and a powerful weapon in fighting terrorism, said Irvington Police Chief Michael Cerone, who heads the state-designated Counter Terrorism Zone 3 covering Westchester and Putnam counties.
"We're not spying on the public; It's about doing our job and finding the bad guys," Cerone said, adding that, "If you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear."
Mounted on the back of patrol cars as mobile units, the LPRs photograph license plates on vehicles traveling at speeds of up to 100 mph, at the rate of one shot per second, officials said. The information is fed into a state database that spits out nearly instant bulletins on a vehicle's registration and the owner's driving history. Officers are alerted to motorists who are driving with suspended or revoked licenses, stolen autos, fleeing criminals, scofflaws and missing people.
Additional cameras are permanently attached to utility poles at undisclosed street intersections and are capable of recording thousands of license plates a day.
The LPRs cost $10,000, and some cost up to an additional $15,000 to install, police said. It's estimated that 1,000 LPRs are in use statewide, said Jim Horton, director of New York's Office of Counter Terrorism under the Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Services.
"They're another set of eyes," Horton said.
Citing national security, law enforcement officials declined to discuss statistics or counterterrorism cases in the region.
Although there are "no specific threats" at the moment, Cerone said the concerns are real. "It's not just our foreign terrorists that I'm worried about," he said. "It's the homegrown terrorists and the lone wolves."
Independence Day policing poses unique concerns related to drinking, fireworks, large crowds and countless late-night events, Cerone said. Officers are concerned with basic public safety while looking out for "suspicious activities" at major public locations such as malls, train stations and bus depots, he added.
The New York Civil Liberties Union is not reviewing the use of the cameras, but the devices raise eyebrows, said Daniel Berger, director of the NYCLU's Lower Hudson Valley Chapter.
"People just don't expect their routine travels to be captured in a government database for years to come, but license plate readers create the potential for that to happen," Berger wrote in an email.
Ana Escotto, 48, of Hastings-on-Hudson, said, "Unfortunately, I think nowadays it warrants" the use of the devices. Her only concern is if LPR usage "becomes abusive somehow, if innocent people were given tickets that weren't warranted or stopped for no reason."
Hector Guitierrez, 30, of Yonkers, said he doesn't mind police using the cameras because he believes "it will make us safer."
Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner said the community's sole camera has been effective in deterring neighborhood crime such as burglaries, and he plans to buy a few more.
"When it comes to public safety, there are just some things you have to do," he said. Besides, "It's cheaper than hiring a police officer."
Hudson Valley Law Enforcement Agencies that own license plate readers:
District attorney's office
Department of Public Safety/sheriff
Police departments in Ardsley, Bedford, Briarcliff Manor, Bronxville, Croton-on-Hudson, Elmsford, Greenburgh, Harrison, Irvington, Mamaroneck (town and village), Mount Kisco, Mount Pleasant, Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, North Castle, Ossining, Peekskill, Pelham, Scarsdale, Sleepy Hollow, Yonkers, Yorktown and White Plains
Police departments in Haverstraw, Orangetown, Spring Valley, Stony Point and Suffern
Police departments in Beacon, Fishkill, Poughkeepsie (city and town), and Rhinebeck.
Police departments in Blooming Grove, Chester (town and village), Cornwall, Crawford, Deerpark, Goshen (town and village), Harriman, Highland Falls, Highlands, Middletown, Monroe, Montgomery, Mount Hope, Newburgh (city and town), New Windsor, Port Jervis, Tuxedo, Walden and Warwick
Police departments in Carmel and Kent
Police departments in Kingston, Lloyd, New Paltz, Saugerties, Shawangunk, Ulster and Woodstock
Information provided by the State Division of Criminal Justice Services