License plate scans foster police activity

Select police vehicles in Middlesex County, since last month, have units mounted on the trunks of patrol cars that collectively scanned more than 370,000 license plates in sight, said Ronald Rios, freeholder deputy director in Middlesex County.

More than 4,000 of these led to police activity including a narcotics arrest, recovery of a stolen car and confiscation of two false identification cards, he said.

“This sophisticated technology will boost safety and security of all our residents and businesses,” he said. “They’re consistent with our best efforts to use federal grant dollars to supply and support our law enforcement personnel with the most up-to-date tools.”

Police departments in towns considered at the highest risk for terrorist activity were awarded the units, Rios said. Among them are Edison, New Brunswick and University police.

The license plate readers are installed on the trunk of the police car and every car within range is scanned, he said. When an officer pulls somebody over, every car driving past will have his or her information sent to the database.

The New Jersey Department of Homeland Security paid for the license plate scanners with federal grant funds in an effort mainly to help the war on terror, Rios said.

“It’s really a great tool,” he said. “It’s utilized in various communities with an infrastructure that’s a target to protect, near towns with railroads, like New Brunswick.”

Rios said he is not concerned with cost of the scanners.

“The price was right, these were homeland security grants,” he said. “It’s making our law enforcement personnel very happy.”

The price of the license plate readers was not specified, said Robert Merkler, office administrator at the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s office.

“There are mobile units and portable units, [prices] vary” he said. “On average they’re about $1,900 to $2,100 a unit.”

Merkler said officers have been active regardless of the seriousness of crimes.

“Whatever comes up, the officer is going to react to,” he said. “But the whole concept is to target the sites where the critical areas are located, to protect those sites from people who are intent on doing damage to those sites, driving around the area looking for vulnerabilities.”

Despite the spike in overall police activity, the license plate readers have not uncovered terrorist activity so far, Merkler said.

There are measures made to secure privacy, he said. The attorney general gave the local police specific directions on how to handle the information from the license plate scanners that protect the citizens.

“[Handling information is] not subjective,” Merkler said.

But some residents do not share the county official’s enthusiasm. Wayde Tomnan, a 34-year-old Highland Park resident, thinks the scan is inappropriate.

“I think [the government is] beginning to invade people’s privacy in a way that is unconstitutional and probably a waste of funds,” he said. “Telephone taps and all these things lead to a reduction of privacy.”

Some University students also see the implementation of a license plate scanner as a violation as well as a misuse of federal money.

Mike Simone, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, said it is the police’s duty to protect its citizens, not monitor them.

“They fund [the county] the wrong way,” he said. “[Police] can’t handle the stabbings or the shootings, but they take the time to bust some kids for parties and small amounts of pot.”

Other county officials are excited about the license plate readers, despite some critical county residents.

“My thought is that it’s another tool,” said Mildred Scott, Middlesex County sheriff. “I think it’s very good. It’s a positive."

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