Click Here to Play Audio

License plate readers started going up around Suffolk this week. Soon, 27 of them will be keeping watch on high-traffic streets and entryways into the city.

The cameras scan the license plate of every car that drives past. They automatically notify police if they scan a plate that matches one flagged in a state or federal database.

Captain Jesse Epperson from the Suffolk Police Department said the ultimate goal is to reduce crime. But the new cameras have a lot of uses, from locating stolen cars and license plates to immediately flagging vehicles tied to Amber Alerts and other missing person reports.

What the new cameras won’t do is give you a traffic ticket.

“These cameras are not speed cameras. They don't track defective equipment on vehicles,” Epperson said. He differentiated them from something like a red light camera, which Suffolk doesn’t currently use.

License plate readers have raised ire in the past from privacy advocates, who argue that the indiscriminate collection of data on the general public risks catching average citizens in the surveillance net.

Epperson said images from the cameras will be purged from Suffolk’s database every 30 days, unless the image becomes part of an investigation. Any officer trying to log in and view the database will have to give a justification to do so, and each of those logins will be tracked and audited.

This also isn’t the first time license plate readers have been deployed in Suffolk. Epperson said police had them on their cars at one point, but haven’t for the better part of a decade.

There are even private license plate tracking cameras currently in use around the city. Epperson said homeowners associations and apartment complexes all over - from Harbour View to Godwin Boulevard - have put them up to keep an eye out on their streets.

Success with those is part of what encouraged the city to approve the purchase of the cameras earlier this year.

Fourteen of the cameras will go up over the next few days, Epperson said. The remainder will be installed as they get clearance. 

Police say they aren’t targeting any particular area of the city with them, but are focusing on points of entry to the city and high-traffic thoroughfares.