Dan Hust | Democrat
LUIS ALVAREZ, ABOVE, shows off the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office’s new license plate reader (closeup, top) and its distinctive mount: a 2006 Impala.
New High Tech Tool in Deputy's Car Has Got Your Number
By Dan Hust
SULLIVAN COUNTY May 15, 2007 As Sullivan County Sheriff’s Sgt. Luis Alvarez walked to his squad car, an unblinking eye reflected his image and that of patrol headquarters behind him.
He opened the shiny 2006 Impala’s trunk, painted in the Sheriff’s Office’s new black-and-white scheme, and flipped a switch. The sounds of a hard drive bounced off the carpeted interior.
Following the straight-arrow trail of two thick cables extending from the trunk to the car’s roof, the sergeant inspected the still-unblinking eye, ensuring no dust would blur its vision.
The 20-year police veteran checked its twin, as well, just a few inches away, and upon finding nary a spot, he climbed inside Car 52, started the engine, and booted up the aptly named Panasonic Toughbook in between the front seats.
Within minutes, the laptop’s screen glowed bright with the Sheriff’s Office’s newest weapon against crime, and the hunt was on.
Pulling out onto North Street in Monticello, the computer immediately started beeping and Sgt. Alvarez promptly ignored it.
Well, not completely. He did glance in its direction each time, but he knew the sounds indicated all was well in other words, that every passing car, truck, school bus and motorcycle was a registered, insured and inspected vehicle legally allowed on the road.
Indeed, within 15 minutes, he knew this for 133 separate automobiles.
This new “partner” is called the LPR Mobile Plate Hunter 900 better known as a license plate reader. In use by the Sheriff’s Office for the last six months, the $18,000 machine reads plates while moving or stationary, checking them against the state Department of Motor Vehicles’ (DMV) database.
That information, downloaded wirelessly into the laptop every morning, can not only tell officers who hasn’t paid their insurance or registration fees but also if a vehicle is stolen or its owner is wanted.
The system works like this:
Two cameras mounted atop the squad car shoot an infrared beam to the left and to the right, day or night. They’re angled so as to catch license plates within about a 7-foot space immediately to the left and to the right of the officer’s car the usual spots where cars are passing or parked.
(They can be adjusted, however, to aim in other directions, as well.)
Whatever is reflected back at a certain intensity normally a license plate, even those going 60 MPH in the opposite direction is read by the processing system in the trunk within a second, and within another second the results are displayed on the laptop’s screen, including an image of the car and a remarkably clear closeup of the plate itself.
Those results are instantaneously compared with the DMV’s database and logged on a rewritable CD. If all is well, a beep and a corresponding display of green softly alert the officer.
If something is wrong, however, a klaxon sounds, along with a flashing red bar, and information is displayed indicating what may be the cause.
“Once we get a hit,” explained Sgt. Alvarez, “the first thing we do is confirm with our base.”
At the same time, the officer positions himself behind or near the offending vehicle, refraining from lights and sirens until patrol headquarters verifies there is indeed a problem.
Once confirmation is given, the stop is made and unlike speeders, the driver often really doesn’t have any idea why they’re being pulled over.
“You’d be surprised at how many people are suspended and don’t know they are,” related Sgt. Alvarez.
“That’s why we have a heart,” he continued. “We try to accommodate them the best way we can.”
Oftentimes, all the owner has to do is get his vehicle properly registered and insured. However, state law prohibits them from taking an unregistered or uninsured vehicle out on the road, so they must arrange alternate transportation in the meantime.
While Alvarez takes no pleasure in being the bearer of such bad news, those tend to be the easy cases. Plenty of other times, he finds out their driver’s licenses have been suspended (discovered via a radio call to base, as the plate reader only checks vehicle information).
He’s also had occasion to catch stolen cars and arrest wanted fugitives.
As Squad Supervisor Paul Slavik puts it, “there is no ‘routine’ stop.”
But Alvarez insists the plate reader makes officers’ jobs easier. By the end of the day, for example, he’d verified more than 1,000 license plates (only four of which were alert-worthy) an impossible feat the old-fashioned way of pulling people over.
The current record for most plate-reader arrests in one day is 11. Sgt. Ed Clouse holds that record closely followed by Alvarez’s own nine.
“You can go a whole couple of hours and not get a hit,” said Alvarez, “and then suddenly you’re catching everyone.”
And that’s not solely out on the road. The cameras work just as well in parking lots and driveways.
Sgt. Alvarez cautioned that the point is not to harass people, however. It’s to make Sullivan County’s roads safer especially for its younger residents.
“I’ll sit anyplace I can where I can protect children,” said a sergeant weary of informing parents of the deaths of their kids in auto accidents.
This new $18,000 tool, however, didn’t cost Sullivan County taxpayers more than $1,000.
According to Sheriff Michael Schiff and Undersheriff Eric Chaboty, the New York State Sheriffs’ Association noted the local sheriff’s interest in such a cutting-edge device and helped secure a NYS Dept. of Criminal Justice Services grant that paid for everything but the laptop itself (which was bought at Kristt Co. in Monticello).
“I’m thrilled to death that we got it,” related the sheriff. “It’s an incredible tool for law enforcement.”
Undersheriff Chaboty added that the Sheriff’s Office is eager to test its other capabilities, as well, including the ability to input specific information on “wanted” vehicles not in the DMV database.
“And you can go back in time, too,” he said, explaining that should officers be alerted to a burglary or kidnapping, for example, they can cycle back through all the recently-checked license plates to see if a patrol car passed the suspect’s vehicle before the crime was reported.
That’s why Sheriff Schiff said they’re looking to gain another grant to add a second plate reader to the force or more, if the funds come through.
“It’s exciting to have it,” he said. “A lot of places don’t have this technology.”
Fred Stabbert III | Democrat
A STUNNED KEVIN McElroy checks out the damage at his eatery, 27 Main St. Pizzeria in downtown Callicoon, when an early-morning fire broke out on Saturday in a flower box attached to the front of the building.
Quick Action Averts Fire Disaster
By Fred Stabbert III
CALLICOON The residents of the hamlet of Callicoon are certainly lucky that Frankie Hahn is an early riser.
Hahn, who’s been a Callicoon volunteer fireman for more than four decades, was taking his usual drive down Main St. on Saturday morning at 5:45 a.m. when he saw flames licking up out of a flower box in front of 27 Main St. Pizzeria.
“I rounded the corner and there were flames and smoke coming out of the building,” he said. “I backed my truck back up to the firehouse and started getting the pumper out.”
Soon the fire whistles in Callicoon and Hortonville were breaking the silence of a peaceful spring morning.
By 6 a.m., nearly 35 firemen and five fire trucks from the two departments were at the scene.
Callicoon Chief Willie Maxwell said the fire had already burned through the flower box and the front wall of the pizzeria before firemen could get it under control by cutting it off the building.
“My guys and Hortonville did a great job,” he said. “We had all our equipment out and men were there within 5 or 10 minutes.
“The fire did get inside a little but we knocked it down quickly,” Maxwell said. “There was no extension to the second floor or basement.
“It’s a good thing Frankie never sleeps,” Maxwell said. “Another 5 or 10 minutes and it would have been another story.”
Kevin McElroy, 27 Main St. Pizzeria’s proprietor, said he got a phone call almost immediately when the fire alarm blew.
“I looked out my window and didn’t see any flames,” he said.
But once he got down to the building he saw what damage had occurred.
Several onlookers at the scene speculated that a smoldering cigarette from the night before could have finally burned through the flower box and ignited the wall.
No exact cause has yet been determined and the fire is still under investigation, according to Maxwell.
The New York State Police, Sullivan County Sheriff’s Dept. and Upper Delaware Ambulance Corps all responded.
McElroy’s brother, Justin, and father, Jim, were busy soon after firemen gave them the go-ahead, replacing the damaged window and wall.
By noon Saturday patrons were enjoying lunch inside the popular Main St. eatery.
“They saved us again,” a relieved Tom Freda, who owns Freda Real Estate, just a few doors down the street, said Saturday morning. “The volunteer firemen are a bunch of heroes.”