Suffolk County police plans to introduce a controversial new tool as part of its latest crackdown on violent gangs: automatic license plate readers.
The integration of the new surveillance technology in Brentwood, Central Islip and Bay Shore comes amid a spate of murders—six in total—since September. The half-dozen slayings are believed to be gang-related, authorities have said.
The department plans to roll out at least 50 license plate readers across the three communities, paid for with a $1 million state grant secured by State Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood).
The short-term goal is to use the devices to solve open cases, officials said. But ultimately, authorities hope to “decimate the gangs that have committed these crimes,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said outside the department’s third precinct in Bay Shore Monday morning.
The police department has only recently begun discussions of selecting a vendor, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini said, adding that the department additionally has the ability to collaborate with municipalities that have also expressed interest in the technology.
“This is a gigantic shot in the arm,” Sini told reporters. Speaking directly to gang members, he warned: “Do not commit crime in this area. We will catch you.”
Since the high-profile slayings, beginning in September, the department has aggressively targeted known gang members and boosted patrols in and around Brentwood.
Crackdown on Gangs
The latest anti-gang initiative began after the brutally beaten bodies of two best friends—15-year-old Nisa Mickens and 16-year-old Kayla Cuevas—were discovered in Brentwood just one day apart. Their murders are believed to be gang-related, police said. Authorities have since discovered skeletal remains of three missing teens on the grounds of Pilgrim Psychiatric Center on Crooked Hill Road, including that of 18-year-old Jose Pena-Hernandez, an alleged MS-13 gang member.
In the wake of Mickens’ and Cuevas’ murders, police have flooded the Brentwood area, increased patrols, and developed a list of known gang members that gang officers have used to target specific individuals, Sini said.
“This pressure is allowing us to gather unbelievable amount of information,” Sini said. “That’s why we have discovered certain crimes that have occurred in the Brentwood area.”
To date, 30 purported gang members have been arrested for various crimes, ranging from weapons possession to trespassing, Sini said. Additionally, five gang members have been taken into federal custody on racketeering charges. Sini reiterated Monday that the department will not release the names of those in federal custody until authorities believe doing so wouldn’t jeopardize investigations.
When gang violence in Suffolk ratcheted up nearly a decade ago, the crackdown then included rudimentary police work, such as traffic stops. But technology has progressed so much that police believe license plate readers can be used as a “virtual net” encircling the perimeter of targeted neighborhoods to make it difficult for known gang members to pass through unnoticed.
Ramos said the community has grown “weary” of the hastily arranged community meetings and ubiquitous task forces spawned from past slayings, characterizing such efforts as “lip service.”
“We need to get real about this problem and realize that we have to do more than talk about it,” Ramos told reporters.
Civil liberties groups have expressed concern about the integration of plate readers because of the technology’s ability to suck up the plate numbers of every vehicle that passes through a virtual checkpoint. How the information is stored, and for how long, has also raised serious privacy questions. Anyone in possession of such data can access a specific vehicle’s travel history, and, for example, use it to ascertain the driver’s religious and political affiliation, thereby creating a profile of that person.
Ramos said it’s not Suffolk police’s goal to use the technology, which can be outfitted on patrol vehicles and on roadside poles, to monitor the community.
“We must respect the civil rights of our community,” he said. “Anybody that’s concerned with these cameras spying on them—they will absolutely not be used for anything other than solving a crime.”
In order to access the database, an officer would require very specific information, including a case number, officials said. Sini noted that the department would periodically run audits to analyze which officers accessed the database to ensure its proper use.
The three Suffolk communities won’t be the first on Long Island to use these devices.
The Village of Freeport installed more than two-dozen license plate readers around the perimeter of the community late last year, and within 90 days scanned an astounding 15 million license plates. The village lauded how it was able to issue more than 2,000 summonses over that time period and impound hundreds of cars as well as make several arrests related to stolen vehicles. In one instance, the readers helped catch a man wanted for murder in Virgina, village officials said.
But the department of less than 100 officers has reportedly been flooded with thousands of hits through its system, which can cross-reference up to 20,000 plate numbers per minute from federal and state motor vehicle records. The deluge has raised concerns about overburdening the village’s small police force.
In Suffolk, the plan is not to track every single hit, but to input case numbers in order to find specific individuals wanted for serious crimes.
“The residents of Brentwood, Bay Shore and Central Islip need not be concerned about these cameras unless one is committing a crime,” Ramos stressed.
“We need to get buy-in…this is an asset for the residents of Brentwood,” Sini added.
Officials will hold community meetings as the technology is rolled out to address concerns and obtain input.
In the meantime, police are continuing to put pressure on gangs, Sini said.
In the last month, violent crime is down 75-percent in Brentwood, he claimed, adding that the department is continuing to collect intelligence.
“You don’t stumble upon skeletal remains in a densely wooded area by accident,” he said.
(Featured photo: Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini requested tips in the murder of two Brentwood teens on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016.)