The Coastal Star

Along the Coast: Unified license-tag checking system considered

Cameras along A1A and bridges can identify suspect vehicles

By Rich Pollack
    Police departments along the coast of southern Palm Beach County are studying the feasibility of cooperating on an automated system to scan the license plates of every car traveling along State Road A1A from Boca Raton through Manalapan.
    For more than a year, representatives from several coastal police departments, and a small group of private communities, have been exploring the costs and benefits of implementing an automatic license-plate recognition system that scans license plates on passing cars and compares them to criminal and other databases.
    Growing in popularity throughout South Florida, the automated license-plate recognition systems are already being used by police in Manalapan and also on a limited basis in Boca Raton and Delray Beach.
    “Our goal with this initiative is to provide an enhanced level of security to everyone who resides on the barrier island as well as to those who enjoy all the area has to offer,” says Ocean Ridge Police Chief Chris Yannuzzi, who has been leading the discussions. “This is a way to put more eyes on the road. Instead of paying additional salaries, we’re looking at the possibility of buying equipment that scans license plates automatically.”
    The license-plate recognition system works by scanning tags of passing cars and comparing that information to tag numbers entered into databases by law enforcement agencies. If a tag registered to a stolen vehicle, for example, is spotted by the system, an alert is sent to a dispatcher who verifies the information and then notifies officers on patrol.

    In May, the Ocean Ridge Police Department conducted a nine-day test with a mobile license-plate system, scanning more than 15,000 tags. There were 319 alerts, mainly for expired tags and licenses.
    Yannuzzi and other proponents of license-plate recognition cameras say the system has multiple uses and can be implemented to prevent crimes as well as to solve them.
    The system also could be used in Silver Alerts, for example, where older drivers who may be incapacitated are being sought.
    In Manalapan, Police Chief Carmen Maddox says his department, which has had license-plate scanners in place for more than eight years, uses the technology primarily for investigative purposes.
    “In cases where a crime occurs, we can go through the data provided by the cameras,” he said.

Privacy questions raised
    But questions have been raised about whether the cameras go too far in invading individual privacy and whether the information could be used by those outside of law enforcement.
    The question of whether the cameras are a privacy intrusion surfaced during a recent Highland Beach Town Commission meeting. It was quickly addressed by Police Chief Craig Hartmann, who told commissioners that cameras do not record any personal data, only the license plate information.
    Commissioner Carl Feldman said he’s in favor of the cameras if the other towns go along with it, but added there are still concerns among residents that the cameras could be used by those outside of law enforcement.
    “We need to prove to residents that the system can’t be used for malicious purposes,” he said.
    During a recent meeting in which members of the Palm Beach County team studying the technology visited Lighthouse Point — where a system has been in place since 2010 — Boynton Beach Police Chief Jeff Katz asked if information gleaned from the system could be obtained in legal cases, such as a divorce case, to track a spouse’s movements.
    But information gleaned from the system, according to Yannuzzi, is now exempt from Florida’s public-records law and can be used only for law enforcement purposes.
    “We’re not here looking at the actions of law-abiding citizens,” said Lighthouse Point Commander Michael Oh. “The system doesn’t tell us who you are, where you’re going or who is with you.”

Benefits of cooperation
    Banding together to implement a system could have multiple benefits for the coastal communities in South Palm Beach County, according to Yannuzzi and Paul Abbott, a consultant who helped communities in Miami-Dade County with a similar project.
    “If eight or 10 communities work together, they can all benefit by having just one expense during the purchasing and design process,” said Abbott, adding that departments could also share a single server to house a database rather than having several individual ones.
    Added Yannuzzi: “We’re sharing data, we’re sharing resources and we’re sharing costs.”
Although some communities have included tentative costs for the system in budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, actual costs have not yet been determined, nor have vendors been selected.
    In the next few weeks, members of the project team will be bringing the concept to elected officials, according to Yannuzzi.
    “Because there are many entities involved, we want to determine if there is a consensus before we move too far forward,” he said.
    In Ocean Ridge, Commissioner Gail Aaskov said she favors the scanner but Commissioner Rich Lucibella indicated he has some doubts about the system.
    “I’m not sure at this point that the money being proposed for cameras might not be better spent on a different type of deterrent,” he said.

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Comment by Scott Koedel on July 30, 2014 at 12:07pm

Having this tool available would benefit any community; however it will disproportionately benefit communities like Ocean Ridge with only a few major roads.  If the costs can be shared with other adjacent communities without significantly slowing down implementation, so much the better.   Every victim of an unsolved crime going forward should ask themselves whether this tool would have helped our law enforcement officers solve it, or even potentially have prevented it from occurring.

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