Armed with two high-tech infrared cameras, Buffalo police have randomly scanned nearly 92,000 license plates in search of lawbreakers and ticket scofflaws.
In a 10-month period, police wrote nearly 4,400 tickets and summonses based on information gleaned from mobile plate readers. They impounded 754 vehicles and issued nine arrest warrants. The offensive is credited with helping seize a child support deadbeat, a drug suspect and a DWI offender.
Mayor Byron W. Brown is so impressed with the effort that he's inclined to support a push by Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson to expand the program by adding five new cameras and supplying them to all police districts.
But plans to broaden the program are being assailed by the New York Civil Liberties Union.
"We see it as an expansion of Big Brother technology," said John A. Curr III, the group's regional executive director.
The $125,000 expenditure to expand the program can be funded through state efficiency grants that are set aside to improve city operations.
"This program has detected stolen vehicles and helped find people who had arrest warrants," Brown said. "We believe it has added to the safety and security of the city."
The cameras are mounted on the tops of vehicles. After scanning plates and matching them to computer databases, the system instantly alerts the officer inside the car of outstanding infractions or warrants. They've been used at numerous traffic checkpoints and are used during regular patrols.
In an eight-week period between May 1 and June 30, police scanned nearly 35,000 plates.
"The technology is amazing," said Deputy Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda.
But what's the difference, Curr asked, between officers trolling streets, logging license plate data, and having law enforcers stationed outside homes watching as people leave for work daily?
What protections are in place, Curr asked, to make sure the data isn't used for other purposes such as tracking people's activities or even sold to private firms for demographic research?
It may sound far-fetched, but it could happen, Curr warned.
"This mayor has not been very good on civil liberties," he said..
Curr cited the city's plan to install surveillance cameras at crime hot spots, a push to get state permission to use cameras to catch motorists who run red lights and other concerns.
But Brown doesn't see the license plate scanning blitz as an affront to civil liberties.
"The citizens have demonstrated great support for these types of initiatives which fight crime and make our city safer," Brown said.
Law enforcement agencies across the nation are using such devices, including the Erie County Sheriff's Office, the State Police and agencies in Rochester, Schenectady and Long Island.
Earlier this year, a few cases involving license plates that were scanned at checkpoints were dismissed in City Court due to a technicality. But Buffalo Corporation Counsel Alisa A. Lukasiewicz said Thursday that procedural issues have since been addressed and that she knows of no legal hurdles that would undermine future prosecution efforts.
Before the program can be expanded, the Common Council and Buffalo's control board would have to approve plans to use state efficiency grants to buy the additional equipment.