By Rich Pollack
Plans to install license plate recognition systems in several coastal communities along State Road A1A are moving forward, with local law enforcement officials exploring the possibility of having a shared database housed in Delray Beach.
During a meeting last month in Ocean Ridge, residents and town leaders from several municipalities had an opportunity to hear about successes the Broward County community of Lighthouse Point is having with automatic license plate scanners and to raise concerns ranging from costs to privacy.
While several local governments still need to give approval to plans to install cameras — and to fund the efforts — Ocean Ridge Police Chief Chris Yannuzzi believes some cameras might be installed along A1A before the end of 2015. At least one town, Highland Beach, has already budgeted money for license-plate recognition cameras in its current budget.
Yannuzzi, who has been leading a multi-agency team exploring the possibility of coastal communities working together to share costs associated with scanners, said there is a strong possibility the Delray Beach Police Department could house a database that would be shared by participating police departments.
License-plate scanning systems operate by scanning and photographing license plates and comparing those plate numbers with information in a law-enforcement database. When a match is found, for a stolen vehicle for example, the appropriate police department is notified and after verification, officers then may be dispatched for further investigation.
License-plate scanning systems are also being used by law enforcement agencies as an investigative tool to solve crimes.
Currently the towns of Palm Beach and Manalapan have license-plate scanner systems operating.
During the meeting last month, Lighthouse Point Police Chief Ross Licata said that he believes a system in which agencies policing the coastal area worked together would be beneficial. “You are geographically ideal for a system like this,” he said.
Throughout a presentation by Lighthouse Point Police Commander Michael Oh, residents raised questions, among them whether the cameras are used to catch speeders.
Oh told the small group that was not the case and not the purpose of the cameras, which only capture tag numbers of cars passing by. He also said the cameras are used strictly for law enforcement purposes and by law cannot be used by private individuals or businesses to keep track of a teenager, a spouse or customers.
In Lighthouse Point, according to Oh and Licata, more than $1 million in stolen property has been recovered — including 85 stolen vehicles — since 2010, when the system was installed.
Over the past two years, Licata said, crime has fallen dramatically, dropping 20 percent in 2013 and an estimated 30 percent last year.
Asked whether the drop in the crime rate can be attributed to word getting out about the cameras, Oh said his department doesn’t have signs advising that the system is in use but doesn’t hide the fact either.
“It’s not a secret,” he said. “We do let the media know about our successes.”
Residents were told the system costs about $20,000 per two-camera installation but learned communities might see a reduction of cost by banding together and buying a larger quantity.
In Ocean Ridge, resident Bob Merkel said he believes there is overwhelming support for installing license plate scanners in the town and hopes commissioners will support the idea.
“There is no question in my mind that this will make the community safer,” he said.
Merkel said residents of his neighborhood off of Island Drive, are so supportive of the idea that they are willing to fund the cameras themselves.
“We already have $20,000 in verbal commitments,” he said.
During last month’s presentation, Licata was asked how the cameras are being received by Lighthouse Point residents.
“We haven’t had any complaints,” he said. “To the contrary, people are happy to have them.”