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License-plate cameras now alerting Shores officers

Photo: Indian River Shores Public Safety officers stop a van flagged by the new license-plate camera system

As of last Friday, Indian River Shores Public Safety officers are receiving alerts in real time from the license plate reader cameras posted at the north and south entrances to the Town, notifying them of infractions as minor as an expired tag and as major as stolen vehicles and felony warrants.

Lt. Mark Shaw said officers stopped 17 drivers over the weekend in response to “hits.” Only three were cited for violations, the rest were given warnings.

The $70,000 system installed and supported by L3 Communications captures clear photos of license plates and vehicles and runs the plate numbers through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and National Crime Information Center databases, returning alerts on pop-up screens at Lt. Shaw’s workstation and directly to officers’ on-board computers.

It took the Shores police several weeks to figure out how to get the camera system working, overcoming technical challenges and government red tape, but now that the cameras are linking-up live with the “hot list” databases, nothing much gets past Shores officers.

In fact, alerts are coming in so fast at busy drive times – when Shores residents are going to or returning from work or errands and construction and service workers are entering or leaving the Shores – that it’s impossible to follow up on every alert.

Monday morning Chief Rich Rosell authorized 16-year Public Safety Officer Tedd Mooney to take a Vero Beach 32963 staff writer and photographer on a ride-along for a couple of hours to see the camera system in action.

“To me, I think it’s great; it’s such a useful tool to see who is going in and out of the Town, and if you do have an auto burglary or a burglary or something, it’s going to help,” Mooney said.

As a senior, triple-trained firefighter, paramedic and law enforcement officer, Mooney is sometimes assigned to train new fulltime staff or new per diem law enforcement officers. “It’s great for training,” Mooney said of the camera system. “You’d never get this much activity normally.”

Mooney and his colleagues must double-check the alert from the cameras by running the tag number through the system manually before pulling over the vehicle. This can cause quite a juggling act, as the officer must also catch up to and locate the vehicle at the same time. Mooney said he likes to move around a lot when he’s on patrol, and that he’s still trying to determine what the best strategic location is for nabbing drivers in response to hits on the camera system.

Drivers caught by the south camera heading southbound into Vero are typically un-gettable as they’re swiftly out of the Shores’ jurisdiction, but if the alert returns a felony warrant or something like a stolen vehicle, the Shores can radio over to the Vero Beach Police Department to be on the lookout for the vehicle.

Drivers caught on the north camera heading north are similarly headed out of the Town and if an alert returned a major concern, the Shores could alert the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office to keep an eye out for the vehicle in their north zone on A1A, or going over the Wabasso Causeway.

Drivers caught on the south camera heading north, or the north camera heading south, present the best opportunity for Shores officers to do an infraction stop. On Monday’s ride-along, Mooney and his fellow officers made two such stops – one for an expired driver license and one for an expired tag.

The expired driver license was linked to a tag on a white cargo van. Three such vans passed Mooney on the road after the computer hit. Fortunately, the image on his on-board computer screen was detailed enough to show the bumper-stickers and window decals of the van, so he knew which one to follow after he verified the hit by running the tag.

A second patrol car, with a pair of officers on a training mission, got the same alert and actually caught up to the van first and pulled it over, following the driver just inside the west A1A entrance to Bermuda Bay. As is customary in the Shores, Mooney pulled up behind the other patrol car as backup.

The expired tag stop was on a Shores resident driving a Subaru. Mooney located the car and followed it, verified the infraction by running the tag number and pulled the man over on Old Winter Beach Road. The man said he was unaware that his tag was expired and that he would take care of it that very day. Mooney said he deemed the man’s story credible and issued a warning, but if the driver does not renew the tag, he would likely pop up on another alert the next day and get pulled over again.

Shaw said one stop on Sunday netted a drug arrest when a driver pulled over for a minor infraction was found to have marijuana in the car. Thirty-one-year-old Ritter Van William Cyphers of the 4800 block of Bethel Creek Drive, who records indicate listed his occupation as “bartender” and had 10 prior bookings into the Indian River County Jail, was arrested Sunday night on charges of misdemeanor possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana and misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia. He posted bond awaiting a court date.

For about a week before the cameras were linking to the “hot list” in real time, Shaw had been running the list of tag numbers manually and noticed a reported stolen vehicle coming in and out of the Shores on what appeared to be a regular weekday work schedule.

The red pickup-truck had been reported stolen some time ago, and when Shaw looked up the case, he noted that a friend of the owner had taken the truck without permission. Shaw said he suspected the owner got the truck back, but never rescinded the report, so he was riding around in what would appear to any law enforcement officer as a hot vehicle. Shores police made contact with the owner, and cleared up the misunderstanding so the “stolen vehicle” alert could be lifted from the system.

“If he’d gotten stopped somewhere else, like down in Miami or something, it could have been at gunpoint,” Shaw said.

Over time, as Rosell and his officers grow accustomed to the new system and camera system alerts become part of their routine patrol duties, they hope to be able to follow up on more of the alerts as they come in, but the department policy does not require officers to pull drivers over or to give tickets for infractions that could be let go with a warning. The policy states officers are to locate and stop vehicles when time and staffing permits.

Rosell will give the Shores Town Council monthly updates on activity stemming from the cameras and the on-board alerts, and with Shaw will perform a monthly audit of camera policies and the impact on the Shores public safety force.

As a next step, Rosell said he will propose another set of cameras be posted somewhere along Old Winter Beach Road, so drivers with violations don’t start using that as a way around the cameras.