The Hialeah Police Department is installing cameras at eight key intersections and equipping an undercover patrol with four high-definition cameras to snap photos of the license plates of thousands of vehicles a day — not to catch red-light runners but in a controversial attempt to stem the wave of robberies that has hit the city.
The automatic cameras send immediate alerts to police when tags of stolen cars are detected or when a car’s owner has an arrest warrant or suspended driver’s license.
“These are not cameras to fine the drivers,” said Lt. Joe De Jesús, a New Yorker with 36 years of police experience in Hialeah, who has specialized in processing information with the new system. “These cameras have become a powerful tool to fight crime.”
The city has experienced a wave of robberies in commercial areas or close to police and city facilities during the past year, and community activists are worried.
Police cite the case of a Farm Stores shop — popularly known in Hialeah as La Vaquita (The Little Cow) — only five blocks from a police substation that was robbed twice earlier this month by a man who threatened its female employees with a screwdriver.
Last Thursday, a Radio Shack store was robbed for the second time in less than a year. A masked man crashed his truck into the door of the store in west Hialeah and, in a matter of seconds, made off with all the merchandise he could.
“This series of robberies is affecting business in our city,” said Modesto Pérez, president of the Miami-Dade Association of Businesses and Neighbors, based in Hialeah. “The police do what they can, but they have to do more.”
Not everyone is pleased with the new system. Carolina González, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said that if Hialeah plans to keep a database with information on which cars enter and exit the city, “they should show clear regulations about who will have access to it, what would be its use and how long the information is going to be stored. . . .
“This is not clear,” González said. “It is insulting to place cameras that have no benefit whatsoever nor reduce crime, making Hialeah residents believe that they do work. They are simply giving the impression that they are doing something about it.”
During the first two weeks of the camera’s operation, which was established with $200,000 in federal funds, the system has photographed the license plates of more than 156,000 vehicles, of which 14,790 belonged to drivers with suspended licenses.
De Jesús said the photographs allow the creation of a strategic database for different police units to carry out investigations — from the search of a car driven by an elderly person with Alzheimer’s to a vehicle involved in a crime.
In the case of the La Vaquita shop that was robbed twice, the vehicle used by the thief was discovered thanks to the new camera system. The store at 510 Hialeah Dr. was held up at 11:50 p.m. Feb. 8, with the robber getting $160. At 7:15 a.m. the next day, shortly after the store opened, the same person came back and stole the remaining $50 in the cash register.
In September, the same man had robbed the store of $200, and also hit the Dairy Queen ice cream shop across the street, where he stole another $200 after threatening a female employee with a weapon.
During the Feb. 9 robbery, a witness identified three of the six letters and numbers on the license plate of the brown Scion driven by the thief.
De Jesús entered that partial information in the system and discovered that the Scion belonged to the mother of Raúl Irán Barrios, 40, a man with a criminal record for armed robbery, whose image had been captured by La Vaquita’s surveillance cameras.
Barrios was arrested Feb. 11, Hialeah police spokesman Carl Zogby said.
“We only had partial information about this individual,” Zogby said, “but thanks to the new camera system we were able to have full identification and proceed to arrest him.”