Jun 19


Smart law enforcement or Big Brother?

The Erie County Sheriff wants to buy x-ray technology typically used by the military to scan vehicles. The request has raised privacy concerns, especially because no rules have been proposed to govern its use.

The Erie County sheriff’s office wants to buy x-ray equipment for scanning vehicles that’s typically used for military purposes and has raised privacy concerns in the civilian world. 

The requested “whole vehicle scanning system” would be used to “enhance the agency’s details at all mass gatherings and critical infrastructure,” according to the department’s grant application filed with the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

It’s a groundbreaking ask.

“We’re not aware of any other agencies applying for x-ray systems capable of scanning entire vehicles,” said Kirstan Conley, spokeswoman for the Division of Criminal Justice Services, which administers requests from police agencies seeking state Law Enforcement Technology grants.

The x-ray equipment carries a $122,000 price tag and would be supplied by NOVO, an Israel-based company with offices in Michigan, according to the sheriff’s grant application. The company’s website shows soldiers using its equipment, which can be carried in vehicles or backpacks. “Ideal for EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) and special forces,” reads a headline above digital brochures.

“It’s made to be used by bomb squads,” said Daniel Walczak, a bomb technician in the sheriff’s department who is listed as primary contact in the state grant application.

The equipment would be used to determine whether suspicious vehicles are carrying bombs or other weapons, Walczak said. A search warrant wouldn’t necessarily be required, he said. A vehicle found in a restricted area without authorization might be subject to search, he said.

“I would say that consent would obviously be requested first,” Walczak said. “If we’re searching for bombs on a credible threat, exigent circumstances will play a part of it.”

Donate to support our nonprofit newsroom

Walczak said he had no information on license plate readers and surveillance cameras that are part of the grant request.

Christopher Horvatits, sheriff’s spokesman, did not respond to two emails and a phone call seeking information on how the requested equipment, including the x-ray system and surveillance technologies, would be used. Undersheriff William Cooley also did not respond to an emailed inquiry.

In addition to surveillance cameras, license plate readers and x-ray gear, the grant would pay for nine drones, a laser scanner to record evidence from crime scenes, portable radios, computers, lights to illuminate crime scenes, a searchlight for the department’s helicopter and electronic analyzers that detect the presence of drugs in saliva, according to the department’s grant application.

“It all sounds like tools for mass surveillance and invading people’s privacy and trampling people’s Fourth Amendment rights,” said Colleen Kristich, senior community researcher with Partnership for the Public Good, a nonprofit think tank whose purview includes criminal justice issues. “What is the purpose of all this? Where will it be deployed? What communities will be affected? How does it translate into improving public safety?”

The county Legislature is scheduled to vote Thursday on a resolution endorsing the grant. The Legislature’s Public Safety Committee approved the request last week.

“I hope that they’re at least asking questions, not just rubber-stamping this massive militarization grant,” Kristich said.

County Executive Mark Poloncarz and the county law department also must sign off, according to Walczak. County Attorney Jeremy Toth in an email wrote that his role is limited to ensuring paperwork is in order. Daniel Meyer, Poloncarz’s spokesman, wrote in an email that “outside of any unusual issue, the county executive typically signs and approves these requests.”

Get our newsletters delivered to your inbox
* indicates required

Newsletters *

At least one other police department in the state has equipment that can x-ray entire vehicles.

New York City police have been x-raying vehicles for more than a decade with gear installed in vans. In response to a lawsuit filed by ProPublica, an appellate court in 2016 ruled that New York police did not have to disclose how the x-ray equipment is deployed. The equipment, the department successfully argued, is used to prevent terrorist attacks, and disclosing details on how and when it is used would give would-be terrorists opportunity to evade detection.

Secrecy ended in 2020, when the city Council in a 44-6 vote passed the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act, which requires police to make public policies on the use of electronic surveillance devices, including x-ray technology. New York police subsequently published a 10-page policy that details the capabilities of its x-ray equipment, how it is used and protocols in place to protect privacy.

Erie County doesn’t have a similar requirement compelling police to disclose policies on how x-ray equipment or electronic surveillance devices are used.

Beth Haroules, senior staff attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that search warrants aren’t required if a “special need” exists, and preventing terrorist attacks might well qualify.

“The question then becomes mission creep,” Haroules said. 

“They have a way to avoid getting a warrant in connection with a special event. Will they go to a supermarket? We might have another Tops shooter. When they have access to these pieces of equipment, they like to use them.”

Investigative Post

Get our newsletters delivered to your inbox * indicates required

Newsletters *