Community activists in Brentwood Monday both praised and questioned the Suffolk County Police Department’s plan to install over 50 license plate readers across the hamlet in an effort to address fears following six recent gang slayings.
Suffolk County Police Commissioner Timothy Sini on Monday vowed to work “aggressively” to quickly roll out the license plate readers, which the commissioner said would serve as both an intelligence tool for investigators and as a deterrant to would-be criminals.
“We’re putting people on notice in the Brentwood area. ...Do not commit crime in this area; we will catch you,” Sini said at a news conference Monday morning outside the department’s Third Precinct in Bay Shore.
Irma Solis, director of the Suffolk County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said while she understands law enforcement’s reliance on the technology, she has concerns about the collection of so much data from people not involved in criminal activity.
“We understand; we’re all concerned about safety,” said Solis. “But our main concern is making sure that the community knows and it’s clear how this data is going to be used and stored.”
Solis, who said there have been instances of police abuses of similar data in other communities nationwide, said she plans to engage the police department in a policy discussion on the cameras’ use “to make sure that law enforcement is as transparent as possible and accountable to the community.”
Sini, who is planning a series of community meetings with Assemb. Phil Ramos to explain the system to residents, said the department has strict protocals that prevent officers from accessing the data without an official reason.
The new cameras, which will be placed at all entry and exit points of the 60,000-resident hamlet, will record the license plates of drivers, allowing police to go back and mine that data when investigating crimes.
The cameras are being paid for with $1 million in state funding, which Ramos secured after the gang killings of five teenagers and one adult rocked the community’s sense of safety.
Hendel Leiva, a self-described “social justice advocate” who grew up in Brentwood, said he was heartened to hear police officials putting forth a concrete plan to deal with gang activity that has long plagued the area.
“I think it’s a great first step, to hold people accountable who are in the community doing harm,” said Leiva, 28. “I don’t know if license plate readers are the answer, but it’s definitely a shift in taking a pro-active approach.”
Dorina Barksdale, a Brentwood resident, said since the recent rash of killings, much of the community is unnerved.
“People are upset,” said Barksdale, 47, whose three children graduated from Brentwood High School. “People are concerned about their kids. The kids are concerned. Parents are being more careful….I understand what they’re doing to protect the community, but it’s like a catch-22 to be honest….Are we crossing the line to the privacy of people even though we’re trying to protect our children?”
The move to bring in license plate readers comes after the 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.
As police investigated the crimes, they found the remains of three missing young men:
Oscar Acosta, 19, was 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.
And then on Oct. 13, Dewann A.S. Stacks, 34, was fatally assaulted as he walked along American Boulevard, near a wooded area.
Police believe all the killings were gang-related.
At least 35 MS-13 gang members have since been arrested, as police have cracked-down on gang members in an attempt to solve the homicide cases. Five are being held on federal charges and facing long prison stints, though police have declined to name the suspects or which charges they face.