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NYPD's license plate cameras stop crime, improve police efficiency

Security cameras that track license plates are helping NYPD stop crime. But are they too invasive?
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Written by Tyler Falk, Contributing Editor on

A different kind of security camera isn't catching bank robbers in action, but it might track down their getaway car.

The New York Times reports that the city's 238 license plate reading cameras -- some mounted to the back of police cars and others on posts on bridges and tunnels -- are aiding the New York City Police Department's investigation team.

The cameras have provided clues in homicide cases and other serious crimes. But they have been used in lesser offenses, too. With them, stolen cars have been identified, located and returned. The cameras have uncovered unregistered vehicles and those with stolen license plates. They can pinpoint fugitives from out of state who are linked to specific automobiles.

Unlike traditional security cameras, they only aim at a small area where a license plate would be located, but as with any security camera there are concerns over the balance between community safety and privacy. That's especially true with the license plate readers because tracking license plates is linked to specific data, whereas traditional cameras help identify people but cannot track movement throughout the city as easily.

The strategy for the use of the license plate readers has raised questions about whether they represent a system for tracking driving patterns, said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. She said it was hard to tell whether interest in “effective and efficient law enforcement” was being balanced with the “values of privacy and freedom.”

“We don’t know how much information is being recorded and kept, for how long, and by which cameras,” Ms. Lieberman said. “It’s one thing to have information about cars that are stopped for suspicious activity, but it’s something else to basically maintain a permanent database of where particular cars go when there is nothing happening that is wrong and there is no basis for suspicion.”

What seems clear, though, is the effectiveness and efficiency that the camera brings. Especially at a time when financial cuts are being made across the board, this tool could save time and money but also bring criminals to justice faster.

  • In 2005 there were 17,855 reports of stolen cars in NYC. In 2010, there were 10,334.
  • Arrests for grand larceny auto have increased to 248 through March 27 from 190 during the same period a year ago.
  • The cameras were responsible for the recovery of 3,659 stolen cars since 2006.

Photo: Nick.Allen/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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