N.Y. police scan cars with high-tech cameras

By Michael Frazier

LONG ISLAND, N.Y. A symphony of bleeps inside the Long Beach police cruiser drowned out nearby traffic on a recent morning as Sgt. Bill Dodge pulled into a public parking lot. The pace of the bleeps quickened when he passed the first row of cars in the lot. "There's nothing in here," Dodge said. "Let's head out into the street."

Turning into traffic on Beech Street, Dodge passed dozens of cars before the bleeps gave way to an alarm, then a robotic voice told him about a parked van whose registered driver has a suspended license.

"It just did in 30 seconds what usually takes an officer an entire day," he said.

The Long Beach Police Department is among a growing number of law enforcement agencies nationwide using the roof-mounted license plate reader, known as the Mobile Plate Hunter.

At least 18 police departments on Long Island, including Nassau County and Suffolk County police, use readers, which cost about $22,000, said North Carolina-based manufacturer Remington ELSAG.

More than 220 departments use it nationwide, the company said.

The electronic bleeps and alarms are emitted from the reader when the two infrared cameras scan license plates at a rate of between 15 to 25 per second, the company said.

Images of those plate numbers are sent to a database in the car trunk and compared to a digital list of vehicles wanted for various crimes, traffic violations, reported stolen cars and vehicles linked to Amber Alerts for kidnapped children, authorities said.

"If my car is stolen, it's good to know something is out there to help get it back," said cab driver Alexandra Pomposelli of Mineola.

The infrared cameras, which work like supermarket scanners, can record plates of moving or stopped cars.

The system, and similar ones, is more widely used in Europe.

"We live in a post 9/11 world," Remington ELSAG president Mark Windover said. "When you look at many domestic terrorism incidents, many times a vehicle is involved."

Although the device has growing popularity in the United States, the New York Civil Liberties Union noted some potential problems. The group opposes a New York City proposal called the Ring of Steel that would feature a similar license-plate recognition system.

The plan calls for infrared cameras to scan plates of Manhattan's inbound traffic as part of anti-terrorism efforts.

"From our perspective, police should be in the business of investigating crimes, not tracking law-abiding citizens," said Christopher Dunn, the group's associate legal director.

Driving is a privilege, not a fundamental right, Dodge said, adding that officers have always recorded plate numbers for investigations. The reader, he said, makes that work easier.

Since implementing the device in January, Long Beach police receive about 40 alerts daily for potentially stolen cars and suspended or revoked licenses.

Before the reader, there were just a few a day, Dodge said.

Primary uses of the reader vary from each department.

In Arizona, Gov. Janet Napolitano said the device is helping to combat human trafficking. Because smugglers often use stolen cars, cruisers equipped with readers at the Mexico-Arizona border can help break up trafficking rings, said Napolitano spokeswoman Jeanine L'Ecuyer.

In Long Beach, Dodge recently parked near a busy intersection, scanning cars whizzing by in search for any stolen ones. He equated using the device to playing the slots in Las Vegas.

"The more plates you feed it, the more of chance you'll find something, he said.

Copyright 2007 Newsday

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