Chief: License plate readers won’t be used to track residents

Scott Grower of J&M Contracting installs a reader at Washington and Main on Wednesday, June 10 (photo by David Gordon)

Scott Grower of J&M Contracting installs a reader at Washington and Main on Wednesday, June 10 (photo by David Gordon)

Police Chief Joseph Sinagra sees it as a crime-fighting tool. Others, including the New York Civil Liberties Union, see it as a potential threat to Americans’ privacy.

Whatever you believe it to be, whatever it is, it’s coming to a utility pole near you.

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The Saugerties Police Department will augment its current mobile license plate reader with three stationary units by the end of the month.

The readers, which were secured through a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, will be affixed to poles at Main and Partition, Main and Washington and the Town Hall parking lot on Ulster Ave.

License plate readers are capable of scanning thousands of photographs of passing vehicles per minute, complete with the date, time and location of each photo. Cascading terabytes of information on people innocent of any crime can be stored for years and shared with other police agencies.

Watchdog organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union warn that plate readers pose worrisome questions about privacy.

Sinagra says he’s well aware of the criticism surrounding plate readers. He says he’s read the Civil Liberties Union’s report.

“I have an empathetic ear for the possible misuse of readers,” he said earlier this week. “They’re only beneficial when used properly.”

Sinagra’s also keenly aware of what plate readers can provide for law enforcement agencies. And for him, the advantages far outweigh the potential for abuse.

A reader can provide information ranging from the mundane to the critical, he said; it can identify a vehicle with a revoked registration, one that’s been placed on a state or federal “hot list” or one that has been involved in a serious crime, be it a kidnapping or a bank robbery.

That’s all well and fine, says Mariko Hirose, a staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union.

“But all that information is being stored and across time, it’s easy to imagine the comings and goings of millions of people will be available.”

Hirose said, as an example, “patterns” could be detected in a person’s travels, such as whether he or she were a regular Sunday churchgoer or was spending time in a certain part of town — a pattern that could imply someone was having an affair.

Sinagra remains skeptical. It’s not as if the technology or its applications are anything new, he says. Police agencies have been using them for at least a decade, and no one’s raised much more than a theoretical ruckus.

The department has had a patrol car equipped with a plate reader since 2007, and it’s far from unique. A majority of county police agencies, including the City of Kingston, Ulster County Sheriff’s Office and SUNY New Paltz Police have fixed and mobile units and have relied on them for years.

“It’s an additional tool that can be utilized to track criminal acts,” he said. The new readers will  allow the department to do more with less, a process that Sinagra describes as filling in the “lessness gap” resulting from budgetary restraints.

The best way to ensure no abuse happens locally, he said, is transparency. To that end,  he notes the department’s policies on both mobile and fixed-point readers are readily available through the department.

“I can assure you we won’t use any database against the people in this community. We won’t be tracking anyone through the village. I just don’t have the interest, energy or manpower to do anything like that.”