A camera mounted to a lamppost on the Sea Isle City Boulevard Bridge has taken a picture of every license plate leaving the island for the past two years.
The information is transmitted to a computer at the nearby Police Department, where officers use it to monitor for stolen vehicles and suspected criminals, or keep it to be used in a potential future case.
The automated license plate reader, or ALPR, is a technology that is growing in use locally and throughout the world as a way to dramatically expand the reach of police investigations.
Cameras essentially take photographs of passing vehicles and use software to extract the license plate numbers — data that can then be used to automatically search police databases for any issues with that vehicle or its registered owner.
“It’s a very, very good tool when you deploy it right,” said Sea Isle City Police Lt. Kirk Rohrer, who has used the system for several successful investigations.
Using the technology correctly has been a concern among privacy advocates, though, who worry what would happen if the immense amount of data being collected is misused.
At the end of July, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey filed public records requests to 21 police departments in the state — including Atlantic City and Vineland — and hundreds more nationwide to get more information about how ALPR systems are being used.
“From a civil liberties perspective, we’re more concerned about how the information is kept, who has access to it, how long it is kept, things of that nature,” said Thomas MacLeod, the ACLU-NJ’s Open Government Project fellow who filed the requests in New Jersey.
Nevertheless, law enforcement has been using the technology for years and its use continues to expand.
The Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office announced Thursday that it purchased seven more ALPR systems for municipal police departments to attach to patrol cars to similarly scan license plates that go by.
These mobile ALPRs will go to Ocean City, Sea Isle, North Wildwood, Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, Lower Township and Middle Township police departments, joining an untold number of other towns that also already use the systems.
The prosecutor’s office said the technology could capture as many as 3,600 license plates a minute going by at up to 160 miles per hour. It could identify cars whose owners have suspended licenses, place suspects at the scenes of crimes, monitor gang activity, assist in drug enforcement, and be used for many other law enforcement activities.
Exactly how departments should use the devices and then maintain the records they generate is laid out in guidelines from the state, county and individual departments, some of which are still being developed.
Former state Attorney General Paula Dow issued guidelines for ALPR technology in 2010. It said records should be purged after five years, and that there should be a record of who accesses the information and when.
It also said the data can be used when a plate generates an automatic alert, such as in the case of a wanted suspect or stolen vehicle, or for follow-up investigations related to a number of situations, such as dispelling an alibi or determining if someone frequents a high-crime area.
An example in the guidelines that would permit records to be accessed even if no alert is generated would be to investigate a crime that would involve extensive planning or possible rehearsals, such as a terrorist attack, for days, weeks or months before an event.
The information has been used to proactively deter crime, such as in the case of Camden, which installed a $1.8 million citywide surveillance system last year.
The cameras it uses monitor high-crime areas and letters are sent to anyone traveling there, notifying them that they may be investigated and charged if believed to be committing illegal activity.
MacLeod said this is just the type of intrusion into privacy that the ACLU fears could be used for the wrong reasons.
“It permits basically surveillance essentially for its own sake,” he said. “It’s the type of thing that could conceivably be misused if someone with access to the information had an axe to grind with someone and they could track their movements.”
In the case of Sea Isle, records are stored on servers in the police department. The software is provided by Intelligent Security Systems, a company based in Woodbridge Township, Middlesex County.
Aluisio Figueiredo, chief operating officer of ISS, said his company does business in 51 countries, providing everything from ALPR systems to facial recognition software. He said the algorithm to identify license plates was created around 2001, but the technology has matured in recent years.
“We are not replacing the police, but we are definitely enhancing their ability to solve crime,” Figueiredo said.
Rohrer said he has used Sea Isle’s camera a couple dozen times to investigate different cases, and earlier this year he used it to solve a shoplifting case.
Surveillance footage from Heritage Surf and Sport, on Landis Avenue, caught two people stealing an expensive pair of boots. Based on his experience, Rohrer suspected they probably left the island immediately after.
He ran a search of all cars the ALPR recorded leaving within the next few minutes, and he started calling the owners and asking why they were in the city. He eventually reached a mother who said her daughter borrowed her vehicle.
“I said, ‘Look, does your daughter have a brand-new pair of blue UGGs?’” Rohrer said.
The answer was yes, and after a more thorough investigation, the police charged the girl.
“That never would have happened without this technology,” he said.
Contact Lee Procida:
Follow @ACPressLee on Twitter