By PHIL NOBILE
While mass surveillance measures and privacy rights continue to be a contentious issue across the country, the Town of Harrison recently approved multiple new automatic license plate readers to be placed throughout town, beginning a surveillance project that has been years in the works.
Part of the “town surveillance project” by the Harrison Police Department, the 14 new systems will be placed on poles or mounts throughout Harrison, West Harrison and Purchase with the purpose of instantly and accurately reading all license plates. Harrison Police Chief Anthony Marraccini said ever-changing technology has led to the project, and the readers, and systems like them, can help solve active and potential crimes.
“As technology advances and policing becomes more sophisticated, it’s common to have license plate readers in communities and throughout the county,” Marraccini said. “When we experience criminal activity where we have no leads or physical evidence, these devices can be instrumental in helping us solve crimes that would normally go unsolved.”
Approved unanimously by the all-Republican Town Council at its June 19 meeting, the systems will cost almost $200,000 which was requested in the 2012 Police Surveillance System Capital Budget and bonded for, with the police department researching and deciding which technology to purchase at that time, according to Comptroller Maureen MacKenzie.
The devices were purchased from Major Police Supply, which serves as an emergency equipment distributor for the multinational conglomerate 3M.
Automatic license plate reader systems take images of vehicles and, using optical character recognition, scan the license plates into a database to pair them against previously known plates. The license plates in the system include known offenders or suspended licenses.
With the department already having up to 10 mobile license plate reader systems on Harrison police vehicles, according to Marraccini, the total number of readers comes to 24, which is significantly higher than neighboring
New Rochelle, a city which has a population more than double Harrison’s at 78,315 according to 2012 United States Census Bureau numbers, has two license plate readers in total, according to Lt. George Marshall, the traffic unit commanding officer for the New Rochelle Police Department. The department has 158 total active officers.
The Town of Harrison’s population is 27,785 according to the 2012 Census, and there are currently 60 active officers on the Harrison police force.
On the smaller end of the spectrum, the City of Rye with a population of 15,855 based on 2012 Census numbers has used one license plate reader “for a number of years,” according to Rye Police Lt. Scott Craig. The City of Rye’s police force consists of 36 officers.
When asked about the difference in readers, Marraccini said it was unfair to compare in population size when taking into account the thruways and interstates surrounding Harrison’s boundaries.
“I’m not sure the amount of readers can be determined by population alone. Harrison has more than 100 miles of roadway; we are by every major highway that goes through the county,” he said. “It’s not about population. It’s about covering your community the best way you can through criminal apprehension or deterring crime.”
But not everyone is as gung-ho on the topic of license plate readers as Harrison officials.
The American Civil Liberties Union—a national privacy rights advocacy group headquartered in New York City—has shown vehement disapproval of the systems and has raised caution at their widespread implementation and popularity over the past decade. More than 71 percent of police departments across the nation now implement some sort of license plate reader system in their daily operations, according to a 2012 study by the Police Executive Research Forum.
Because of the encompassing and passive nature of the readers, the organization has argued the systems are “radically transforming the consequences of leaving home to pursue private life,” and “tracking people’s location constitutes a significant invasion of privacy,” the group’s website states.
Daniel Berger, director of the lower Hudson Valley chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the readers and technology like them can be an extremely valuable tool for law enforcement, but allow for haphazard data collection en masse and potential misuse and abuse.
“The problem arises when they’re used in an indiscriminate matter without appropriate policy controls put in place,” Berger said. “The kind of information recorded would allow law enforcement to learn things about people’s religious beliefs, if they attended protests and about interpersonal connections.”
According to Berger, all other municipalities in Westchester that use similar systems have databases that transfer the information to the county, leading to a county-wide collection of motorists. Berger argued that, in turn, this could lead to a state-wide collection of innocent motorists and, eventually, a national database of innocent citizens and their travels as a result.
“You’d eventually have a national database recording everyone’s movements, and you could go back years and track where everyone has been travelling regardless if you had any reason to suspect if they were doing anything wrong,” he said.
Without the system set up, Marraccini was unable to say whether or not the data collected would be capped and deleted after a certain period of time or indefinitely held by the police department, and where exactly the readers would be mounted throughout town.
The police chief also denied any intention of putting the information into a county-wide system, but said that any law enforcement agency that needed assistance during a criminal investigation “we would normally share information with.”
The chief added, “Our interest isn’t in average citizens or people who are not involved in criminal activity. Our interest is in solving crime, deterring crime and cost savings when it comes to investigative hours.”
As for the remainder of the town surveillance project, Marraccini said the department was looking into potential video recording systems to be placed throughout town to make a “cohesive informational gathering system that will assist in solving crimes and criminal apprehension.”
The chief did not speculate as to when a system would be possibly purchased or implemented.
Calls to Harrison Mayor Ron Belmont were not returned as of press time.
-With reporting by Taylor Khan