Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Camera Scans of Car Plates Are Reshaping Police Inquiries
With the police closing in, Luis Zeledon ducked into a closet, recognizing that his hideout in Queens had somehow been exposed. But for all Mr. Zeledon’s evasiveness, the key to his arrest on murder charges in 2009 came days before the killing even occurred — as he was driving his car.
The Police Department’s growing web of license-plate-reading cameras has been transforming investigative work. Though the imaging technology was conceived primarily as a counterterrorism tool, the cameras’ presence has aided in all sorts of traditional criminal investigations.
The latest example came last month with the arrest of Marat G. Mikhaylich, a suspect in nine bank robberies in New York and New Jersey. Even though the Federal Bureau of Investigation had identified Mr. Mikhaylich through surveillance photos, he had managed to avoid arrest — until he then became a suspect in a car theft.
As Mr. Mikhaylich fled from a bank heist in Edison, N.J., the police said, he took control of a livery cab, which he drove to Queens. One or more of the New York Police Department’s security cameras detected the stolen car’s license plates and directed federal agents to a block in Queens. The next morning, Mr. Mikhaylich was arrested there, as he was stopped at a traffic light — a loaded 9-millimeter pistol in his belt, according to the F.B.I.
There are 238 license plate readers in use in New York City, said Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman. Of those, 130 are mobile. They are mounted on the back of police cars assigned to patrol duties across the city’s five boroughs and to specialized units like the highway and counterterrorism divisions. The remaining 108 cameras are set up at fixed posts at city bridges and tunnels and above thoroughfares.
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.
New York’s use of the license plate readers mirrors how London police have incorporated the cameras. But the idea has taken root in smaller cities in California, Minnesota and Arizona, and the police in Philadelphia have just started using the readers, too.
“It’s one of the fastest-growing technologies in the country,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “Given all the challenges that New York faces, having license plate readers makes a lot of sense.”
The first wave of specialized cameras went into use in New York in September 2006, shortly after Raymond W. Kelly, the police commissioner, introduced a surveillance system similar to one found in London to protect the financial district. The license plate readers were central to that plan, known as the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative; the effort relied on movable roadblocks and thousands of other security cameras below Canal Street, which were linked to a coordination center at 55 Broadway.
“We knew going into it that they would have other obvious benefits,” Mr. Browne said about the use of the readers in the initiative. “Obviously, conventional crime is far more common than terrorism, so it is not surprising that they would have benefits, more frequently, in conventional crime fighting than in terrorism.”
Yet 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.”
When it comes to car thefts, the value of the cameras seems clear, Mr. Browne said.
In 2005, the year before the first license plate readers were put in place, there were 17,855 reports of stolen cars in the city, according to police statistics. Last year, there were 10,334, the statistics showed.
Meanwhile, arrests for grand larceny auto, one of the seven major crime categories, have increased to 248 through March 27 from 190 during the same period a year ago, a 31 percent increase, Mr. Browne said. He said the cameras were directly responsible for the recovery of 3,659 stolen cars since the first ones were introduced in 2006, and for the issuance of 34,969 summonses for unregistered vehicles.
“Arrests are up,” Mr. Browne said. “Right now, grand larceny auto continues to come down, after dramatic decreases, and part of that is due to this technology. So it obviously helps.”
The license plate readers are different from other security cameras in the city: they are aimed low, designed to focus on a small area, unlike traditional surveillance cameras, which look at broader sections like a toll plaza or the entrance of a building, Mr. Browne said. The information collected is immediately checked against databases storing information on stolen cars, stolen license plates, wanted persons and unregistered vehicles.
If a link is found, a small alarm sounds, Mr. Browne said.
The data is also remotely downloaded to computers twice daily. Using this data, investigators can also retrieve photographs of the license plates, Mr. Browne said. New information, like the license plates of a newly wanted person, can be added to the system, and sets of databases are updated twice daily, he said.
In Mr. Zeledon’s case, photos of his 2004 red Nissan Sentra with Connecticut license plates were captured and preserved by a network of police cameras and computers. Mr. Zeledon then became the prime suspect in the fatal stabbing of Andy Herrera, 28, on Jan. 19, 2009. Mr. Zeledon’s car had been seen near 109th Street and Jamaica Avenue, in Queens, about a mile from where Mr. Herrera was killed.
Another set of police records showed that Mr. Zeledon was somehow associated with an address on 109th Street, near where his car’s license plates had been spotted. The clues were collected by a detective at 1 Police Plaza who had pulled them from databases and flashed them on a screen — making a map with the suspect’s photo at its center and a web of white lines connecting him to all his known locations, movements and associations.
At 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 20, 2009, two detectives who were driving to the Freeport, N.Y., home of Mr. Zeledon’s cousin received a call from the detective at the police headquarters who said they might want to first check out the 109th Street address, Mr. Browne said.
He said that once there, the detectives found Mr. Zeledon in the closet and arrested him. Mr. Browne added that Mr. Zeledon, speaking Spanish, later told the detectives, “I’m not an assassin; it was a mistake.”
In a more recent case, the authorities in Richmond, Va., told detectives in New York that a man and a woman reported missing from New Jersey in February were believed to have been harmed. Investigators, who had the license plate number for a silver Nissan Altima, used the information to locate the car on March 11 on East 52nd Street, in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, Mr. Browne said.
In its trunk were the missing people: Evande Orna, 39, and Troy Edwards, 40, he said. Ms. Orna appeared to have been beaten. Mr. Edwards’s head had been wrapped in plastic, and his throat appeared to have been slashed