Suffolk County Police Commissioner Timothy Sini on Monday vowed to work “aggressively” to roll out a phalanx of license-plate readers across Brentwood in the aftermath of a series of gang-related killings that have shaken the community.
“We want to get this going and we want to move on this as soon as possible,” said Sini, adding that the department is “working aggressively” to deploy the cameras across the 60,000-resident hamlet.
The commissioner warned: “We’re putting people on notice in the Brentwood area. ...Do not commit crime in this area; we will catch you. So we believe this will help us clear cases. We believe this will help us prevent crime.”
Sini, joined by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, Assemb. Phil Ramos and Chief of Department Stewart Cameron, spoke at a news conference Monday morning outside the department’s Third Precinct in Bay Shore to announce the license-plate reader initiative.
“This is an incredible leap forward in bringing technology to the department,” Sini said. “One of the main priorities of the Suffolk County Police Department’s administration is to utilize new, emerging technology to make the department more effective, more efficient, and this is a gigantic shot in the arm.”
More than 50 cameras will be placed at about 20 locations at Brentwood’s major gateways, officials said — providing key intelligence to investigators as they seek to solve crimes in the hamlet, where police in the last month have discovered the bodies of six people fatally beaten by gang members.
Sini said in an interview Thursday that he envisions the technology as a major deterrent to gangs and other criminals, as well as a chief component of the department’s strategy to clamp down on gangs since last month’s fatal assaults on Brentwood High School students Nisa Mickens, 15, and Kayla Cuevas, 16. Mickens was killed Sept. 13 and Cuevas’ body was found the next day.
“This is the first time we’ll have an entire community strategically policed by LPRs,” said Sini, referring to the license-plate readers. “We’re going to let everyone know — law-abiding citizens and criminals — about this strategic plan that will prevent crime.”
Sini said the department hopes to install them in the coming months.
The cameras represent a heavy reliance on technology that law enforcement agencies have in recent years integrated with historical policing tactics. License-plate readers, which supply law enforcement with a plethora of data to mine for trends and clues, have emerged as a key tool in solving crimes — especially patterns like robberies and burglaries — and for years have been used by both the Suffolk and Nassau police departments, as well as those in Hempstead, Long Beach and other communities.
Suffolk police have used license-plate readers since 2006 and have about 30 on police cars — used to catch drivers with expired vehicle registrations. Others are at fixed locations that police won’t specify for strategic reasons.
The police are paying for the cameras in Brentwood with $1 million in state funding secured by Ramos, the Democratic deputy majority leader of the Assembly who represents parts of Brentwood, Bay Shore and Central Islip.
“I know how difficult it is when you have a crime such as the murders that took place and you’re starting from scratch, with no information, no leads,” said Ramos, a retired police officer. He said residents were tired of “lip service” from government officials after the slayings. “Bringing in this technology would give the police department a cold hit on a crime in which there’s no other information,” he said.
Ramos and Sini are planning a series of community meetings to explain the camera system to residents and address concerns over privacy and other issues, with both officials stressing that “buy-in” from the community is paramount.
The American Civil Liberties Union has raised concerns about potential abuses, including invasion of privacy, from the systems.
The Brentwood network of cameras won’t be monitored live to catch traffic scofflaws or to surveil the community, Sini said. Investigators only will pull data from the cameras “based on individualized suspicion” that a vehicle description could be connected to a crime.
“It’s not a fishing expedition,” Sini said. “We’re not mining the data unless it’s connected to a specific incident, or we’re looking for a specific individual for a crime.”
Sini said the department has rules and procedures to prevent inappropriate use of data from the readers, but will examine its protocols in light of the extensive network it is building.
“We audit the system, so we hold our officers accountable for using the system,” Sini said. “If there’s a violation of the rules and procedures, they’ll be held accountable.”
Sini said he will measure the success of the license-plate readers by crime reduction, higher clearance of cases and an increase in arrests.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said he would guarantee county funding for maintenance and other upkeep for the camera network.
“This is a vital tool moving forward on the law enforcement front, and I will make sure we have the resources to keep it going,” Bellone said.
Sini, who became commissioner in February, has stressed federal law enforcement partnerships as key to tackling the gang problem on Long Island.
Asked whether the current gang problems could be tied to the past decision by now-jailed Chief of Department James Burke to remove police detectives from an Islandwide federal gang task force, Bellone said the removal was “a major, major failure.” But, he added, the current troubles couldn’t be attributed to any one source.
Sini, a former federal prosecutor, put detectives back on the task force and has worked to re-establish the relationship with federal law enforcement.
While the six recent homicides have been jarring, police officials point to statistics showing violent crime in Brentwood is down in a recent 28-day period and year-over-year.
According to department statistics, total violent crime — including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — fell 75 percent in the 28 days after the Mickens and Cuevas killings, from Sept. 18 through Oct. 15. Violent crime dropped 29.4 percent this year through Oct. 15 over the same time period last year, statistics show. The decrease happened while police flooded the area with more officers after the teens were killed.
Homicides in Brentwood compared with last year have risen dramatically, with seven in the hamlet this year through Oct. 15, compared with none in the same time in 2015, according to statistics.
Days after Mickens and Cuevas were killed and as police began putting pressure on known gang members, investigators began searching wooded areas on and around Pilgrim Psychiatric Center. Their search yielded the skeletal remains of three missing teenage boys, who they said were all beaten to death.
The remains of Oscar Acosta, 19, were found Sept. 16 in an industrial area near the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center. Five days later, the remains of Miguel García-Morán, 15, were found in the same area.
The skeletal remains of Jose Peña-Hernandez, 18, known to police as an MS-13 gang member, were found in a wooded area on the grounds of Pilgrim last week.
On Oct. 13, Dewann A.S. Stacks, 34, was fatally assaulted as he walked along American Boulevard, near a wooded area. Police believe his killing also was gang-related.
The search for missing teens and concerns that gangs could be responsible also has hit Nassau County.
Last week, Nassau and state police descended on a wooded area in Freeport known to authorities as a gang meeting place. They were looking for a missing teen boy who “had some affiliation with some people that may have been gang-related,” said Nassau Det. Sgt. Patrick Ryder, commanding officer of the department’s Intelligence unit.
Police found nothing but gang tags spray-painted on trees, including those of MS-13, but Ryder said violent crime in areas where there’s the most gang activity — Roosevelt, Uniondale, Freeport and Hempstead — has decreased 7 percent since last year.
Shootings, however, are up 14 percent over last year, though Ryder said he could not say whether the uptick is connected to gangs.
The day before the Mickens and Cuevas killings, Uniondale High School student Josue “Joshua” Guzman, 15, was shot dead as he walked with two people about 1 a.m. in the vicinity of the Linden Triangle, the scene of many gang shootings. A source familiar with the investigation said Guzman’s death was gang-related.
And later that same day, about a mile away, a 20-year-old man, believed by police to be a member of the Crips gang, was shot once in the forehead as he drove a silver 2004 Ford Escape in the area of Terrace and Atlantic avenues. He crashed into several parked cars, police said, and was found sitting outside the car when police arrived. That man survived the attack.
Since the Mickens and Cuevas killings, police in Suffolk have arrested more than 35 gang members in an attempt to get information to solve the killings and to stem the rise of gangs.
Five of those gang members, whom Sini described as “some of the most violent gang members that we know of,” were taken into federal custody and are facing RICO charges, Sini said.
The arrests of about 30 other gang members on state charges by the department’s Gang Unit and the newly created Firearms Suppression Team, some for crimes such as trespassing or marijuana possession, can bear fruit, Sini said.
“It may be a minor arrest — trespass, marijuana possession, cocaine possession, weapons possession,” Sini said. “But every time we arrest someone, we debrief them. So that’s an opportunity to gain intelligence. They may flip. They may provide a little bit of information, or a lot of information.”
Joseph Giacalone, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan and a retired NYPD sergeant, applauded the camera plan as a “proactive” move, but said uniformed cops should create a temporary command post in Brentwood in addition to flooding the area.
“The fear factor in Brentwood has to be extremely high,” Giacalone said. “You don’t have to worry about the bad guys knowing you’re coming for them — that’s not a secret. So you have to have that uniformed and marked car presence.”
Giacalone said the license-plate readers wouldn’t help if the gang members weren’t driving when they committed crimes.
“There’s got to be an omnipresence there,” Giacalone said. “If you want to send a message, there has to be warrant sweeps. You pick these guys up and you start shaking the trees. You have to do some proactive policing here because the public isn’t going to help you. They’re too afraid. Yeah, you can do your clandestine operations, but you have to show the gangs you’re in charge.”
Sini said his department has done just that, deploying officers from several commands, including precinct cops, and officers from K-9, Highway Patrol, the Aviation Unit and the Emergency Services Unit. Sini added that Brentwood residents also may see more helicopters in the sky.
“We are strategically patrolling certain areas to reassure the public of their safety and suppress crime,” the commissioner said.