Burke Defends Plate Readers, Accuses Putnam of Neglect

Cold Spring officer: ‘We’re like the lost stepchildren’ of county

Larry Burke, the commanding officer of the Cold Spring Police Department, this week defended the three license-plate readers recently installed in Philipstown as vital in a resource-starved chunk of Putnam County.

“I’m not big on Big Brother,” he said, invoking the repressive, intrusive government envisioned by novelist George Orwell. But for a small force, having a license-plate reader “is like having an extra 10 or 15 cops out there,” he told the Nelsonville Village Board on Monday (Aug. 16).

He accused county officials of neglecting western Putnam and recalled pleading in Carmel for license-plate readers but encountering debate and delays. “I was over there for two years, begging them for any type of LPR or help over here,” he said. “The other side of the county has had them for years. We’re like the lost stepchildren. This side of the county is far behind in technology to help law enforcement.” 

The wrangling ended in late 2020, allowing Cold Spring to buy three readers, funded by a grant from the Putnam County district attorney. The devices were installed last month on Main Street east of Peekskill Road in Nelsonville; on Route 9D near Little Stony Point, just beyond the Cold Spring border; and on Route 9D near Boscobel, about a half mile south of Cold Spring.

The cameras, larger versions of models installed in patrol cars, capture and store images of license plates. 

“It’s a tool that’s great for law enforcement when something bad happens,” Burke said. “I don’t want to wait for something bad to happen and then turn around and say: ‘We should’ve gotten them.’ ” 

He pointed out that “the crime rate is going up” in some areas and one regional criminal habit of thieves who apparently steal cars in Connecticut, and drive them to Cold Spring, where they steal different cars and commit other crimes.

“I could not stand idly by and let this go without trying, somehow, some way, to get these individuals,” Burke said. “If I could do this any other way, believe me, I would.”

He said equipment obtained with money from the district attorney can only be used for serious investigations, so the readers will not be employed to catch drivers who have unpaid tickets, for instance. He also said access to the data, which is transmitted to the Westchester/Putnam Real Time Crime Center, is limited and any request by an officer to see it must be approved by a superior. 

Burke noted that three readers can help solve cases far beyond their location. For example, he said, in early August the readers near Little Stony Point and Boscobel captured the plate of a car that had been stolen in Poughkeepsie; the suspect was apprehended in Ossining. 

The installation of the license-plate readers in Nelsonville and Philipstown caught local officials and residents by surprise. To get more information, the Nelsonville Village Board invited Burke to Monday’s meeting, held not far from the Nelsonville LPR. 

“I want to extend my apologies for the quickness it went up,” Burke said. “It wasn’t meant to be done sneakily.” He said that in the three days after its installation, the Nelsonville reader captured 1,200 images, but none revealed a wanted vehicle.

Although Burke had proposed putting a reader near the Main Street traffic light in Cold Spring, the Sheriff’s Department advised placing them in spots to cover all exits and entrances to the villages. Burke asserted that career criminals avoid communities with readers. 

At the Nelsonville meeting, Jim Knox, an attorney who formerly worked with Burke in New York City, said “we’re blessed to have Larry Burke as a police officer in our presence.” Nonetheless, he objected to “a camera staring at you as you walk out of your house. That’s an Orwellian nightmare. That’s communism. Communism is about control.” 

Knox said he would have sued both villages if any officer besides Burke had led the effort to install the readers. “We need proof. We need evidence” that data collected won’t be abused, he said.

Heidi Wendel, a former federal prosecutor, said she supported the use of license-plate readers. “I don’t see the Orwellian aspect at all,” she said. “It’s just smart law enforcement. It makes us safer.”

Sales tax split

The Village Board added its voice to a call for Putnam County to share some of its sales tax boon with towns and villages,. Voting 5 to 0, it adopted a resolution nearly identical to the one Philipstown approved on Aug.5.

Both measures propose that Putnam give municipalities, collectively, 50 percent of the increase in sales tax revenue over the previous year, which would then be divided among towns and villages on a per capita basis. 

According to materials from newly organized “Share the Growth” advocates, the proposal had been in place in 2019, Philipstown would have received $150,718; Cold Spring, $27,537; and Nelsonville, $10,208.

“It seems like a no-brainer,” said Trustee Chris Winward.

6 thoughts on “Burke Defends Plate Readers, Accuses Putnam of Neglect

  1. I would like to hear a bit more about this: “He pointed out that “the crime rate is going up” in some areas, citing thieves who apparently steal cars in Connecticut, and drive them to the Philipstown, where they steal different cars and commit other crimes.”

    This sounds odd. And I think we should know more about it. Where is the crime rate going up? What are these crimes?

    Every year, in the late summer, there are predictable crimes mostly affecting people visitors and those who are not taking enough precautions or not paying attention. But is this year different?

    • We asked Burke for clarification. He said on Thursday (Aug. 26) that there had been 12 to 15 vehicles broken into overnight in Cold Spring on Aug. 18, and that such incidents 99 percent of the time involve unlocked cars. “If there’s money in those [vehicles], they [thieves] take the money and close the door behind them,” he said. “That’s why a lot of people didn’t want to make a report. They just call me and say: ‘Hey, listen, my glove compartment was opened, there’s nothing missing, there was nothing in there.’ ”

      On the car thieves from Connecticut, he said: “There have been no stolen vehicles in Cold Spring the last three years. I’m just going by what I heard from other law enforcement agencies over the last couple of years. That’s why I told that story at the [Nelsonville] meeting. That was from intel from other police departments: That they have had people in the past take [vehicles] from Connecticut and go to Southeast and go down to other areas. But we have not had that” in Cold Spring.

      • Thanks for the update. But what is reported here hardly justifies these sorts of permanently or indefinitely installed plate readers that Officer Burke appears to be straining to justify.

        I am not doubting there are crimes (but really, a stolen car, several car break-ins affecting people too embarrassed — and probably too foolish — to report them properly?). I doubt these sorts of electronic monitoring devices will not be used (and abused) for purposes other than preventing crime, not by fellow officers or supervisors, but by data hackers and other sorts of criminals.

        In fact, the readers may give a false sense of security, making people even more lax towards crime prevention than they already are. I believe a certain laxness in Cold Spring has already been inculcated due to the consistently good work of the CSPD over the years, so often it is that good work and success breeds complacency.

  2. Thank you staying on top of this important issue, which seems to be increasingly pervasive in American society. Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA conducting surveillance on our own people brought this to our attention. I think we all should be concerned about surveillance cameras in our community. I trust Chief Burke’s reasonable rational for using them, but it is where it goes from there that is potentially troubling. I seriously doubt “communism” has anything to do with it.

  3. It is amazing how many times that our local officials complain about being the “lost stepchildren” of Putnam County. While it may be true, people keep voting in the same people who cannot get the job done. How many more years will the same political party get voted in? [via Facebook]