Village trains new eyes on crime

License plate readers monitor incoming, outgoing traffic


The Rockville Centre Police Department recently acquired two new license plate readers, in an effort to better monitor traffic coming in and out of the village.

The readers, which cost nearly $30,000 each, were funded by a state grant acquired by Sen. Dean Skelos’s office, and can take more than 3,000 accurate snapshots per minute of license plates on vehicles traveling as fast as 75 mph. The devices are now operational, and in position at the junctions of Hempstead Avenue and Reeve Road, and Long Beach and Salem roads.

“The license plate readers are installed, and are going be used for the safety of the residents of the village to provide information during our investigations,” said Lt. Chris Romance.

Each plate captured by a reader is scanned for ownership information, which is transmitted to the Police Department. According to Romance, the readers can help stop crimes ranging from burglary to child abduction. Given an accurate estimate of the time a crime occurred, he explained, police can generate a list of vehicle plates that left the village around that time, which can help narrow the search for fleeing criminals.

“It doesn’t do our work for us — it doesn’t tell us who the bad guy is,” said Romance, who spoke to residents about the readers at a neighborhood watch meeting on Oct. 15. “But it gives us an investigative lead that we may need to capture somebody.”

Every plate reader in New York is digitally connected, meaning that the data any device collects is transmitted to every other reader in the state. If a plate belonging to someone who is suspected of having committed a crime in Rockville Centre is found by any other reader, that police department can inform the RVCPD within minutes. Romance noted, however, that the units are not surveillance cameras, and are not designed to capture images of the vehicle itself, the driver or the surrounding area.

The RVCPD has been using plate readers for some time, albeit mobile ones. A single patrol car can be equipped with two readers, and a car is occasionally dispatched to Sunrise Highway to monitor east-west traffic through the downtown area. The village has allocated the Police Department enough money to purchase two more stationary readers, and the department expects to have them installed within the next two years.

Jason Starr, director of the Nassau chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, warns residents to be wary of the surveillance power these devices give police departments. “Generally, automatic license plate readers are used to collect and store information not just on people suspected of crime, but on every motorist passing by, and are increasingly becoming tools of mass surveillance,” Starr said. “With a license plate number and a vehicle description, you can fairly assume who might be driving. Beyond that, where that car goes regularly is certainly personally identifiable information that one would have an expectation that the government shouldn’t be tracking and recording.”