Suffolk County legislators have delayed a plan to install nearly 70 license plate readers in Brentwood and Central Islip over concerns about their use, though the county police chief said they would help solve crimes and curb gang activity.
Legislators at the public safety committee meeting Thursday tabled accepting a $1 million state grant for the license plate readers, citing questions about how data would be stored and how effective existing readers have been.
Legis. Samuel Gonzalez and Susan Berland also questioned whether the readers should be spread throughout the county instead of just in Brentwood and Central Islip, now that MS-13 gang-related crime has declined.
“There’s a lot of question marks,” Gonzalez (D-Brentwood) said.
County law enforcement officials first announced a plan to install 50 license plate readers in Brentwood in 2016 after several high-profile murders, including of teen girls Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens in Brentwood. Assemb. Phil Ramos secured a $1 million grant that year from the state Dormitory Authority, and it has taken three years for the grant review process to be nearly completed, officials said.
Police Chief Stuart Cameron said the grant would afford installing 67 readers in Brentwood and Central Islip — a hamlet he said always was included in the plan — along major routes and areas that previously have had violent crimes. Two other readers would be purchased as spares. They will expedite investigations with the aid of other technology, such as surveillance cameras, and the Real Time Crime Center, Cameron said.
“We could potentially solve the crime or see the suspect fleeing the scene before the officer even arrives on scene,” Cameron said.
The readers would collect the license plate numbers on every car that passes, but not provide other information, such as the owner’s name, except to point out if a car has been stolen, Cameron said. Police officials would have to run plate numbers through separate databases, including the state Department of Motor Vehicles and Lexis Nexis to get information, and could only do so with proper justification while investigating crimes, he said. All plate numbers collected would be stored in a cloud-based system, and purged after a set retention period.
The Brentwood and Central Islip installations would be the largest rollout of fixed license plate readers in the county, as the majority of existing ones are attached to patrol cars, Cameron said. Even as the county crime rate has hit record lows, the readers are important to prevent a resurgence of gang activity, he said.
"MS-13 is going to try to re-establish territory there," Cameron said. "We'll be much better situated to combat that."
Other police agencies on Long Island have installed the readers, including Hempstead, Glen Cove, Kings Point, Port Washington, Long Beach and Lynbrook. Nassau County police said officials recently approved spending $3.5 million through asset forfeiture funds to install additional readers, but declined to say how many the department has already. In Freeport, officials recently credited the readers, which read 50 million license plates in the last year, with a 54 percent decline in village crime.
Civil liberties advocates long have questioned the use of license plate readers.
Irma Solis, director of the Suffolk County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the readers are an "inadequate way to combat gang violence" because they "collect a massive amount of information on every single car on the road" and can be used as a surveillance tool.
"We also have to keep in mind that communities of color are the ones that are disparately impacted by the use of this technology," Solis said. "Without clear restrictions and clear policies and protocols, we could be allowing for a sweep-up of innocent, low-income people of color or immigrants."
Residents of the hamlets, which have large undocumented immigrant populations, are concerned that the data could be shared with the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Gonzalez said.
But the readers will be used solely for criminal investigations, officials said. “We don’t have any plans to use these in any way, shape or form for immigration purposes,” Cameron said.
Ramos said he insisted the police department use "strict protocols" with the readers, including not sharing the information with ICE. He added they will not be used to generate revenue or issue traffic tickets.
Brentwood community activist Liz Cordero, 56, said the readers are "great" if they are used to solve crimes and keep the community safe, but there is a "fine line" for appropriate uses, she said. The department should engage with the community, including non-English speakers, and give more information.
Cameron said he wants everyone, legislators and residents alike, to be comfortable with the readers before they are installed.
Kelly Di Massimo, 54, a postal worker from Brentwood, said, "If it makes the community safer, I'm all for it."
"If you have nothing to hide, then you really shouldn’t have a problem with it," she said.
Installation cannot begin until the legislature approves the grant, which would happen at the earliest at a Sept. 4 full legislature meeting, officials said. The state Dormitory Authority would then pay for the project on a reimbursement basis, once an agreement is finalized.