A hi-tech secret camera scheme designed to catch criminals on the road is being rolled out across Sussex.

The force Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) system is to be expanded to cover the whole of the county - preventing crooks going anywhere on main roads without being seen.

Cameras will scan the number plates of drivers passing them and check them on the police national database for crimes, ranging from driving without insurance up to assaults and even murder. Patrols will then move in to nab the crooks.

Since April last year, 16 cameras have been operating at seven strategic locations on the edges of Brighton and Hove, covering rat runs as well as the A23 and A27.

Now Gatwick Airport, Littlehampton and Bognor are covered by the cameras, and the scheme will be rolled out to Eastbourne, Hastings, Worthing and Crawley by the end of the summer.

The force has agreed to spend £2.1million on the initiative over the next four years.

Inspector Dave Padwick, who runs the ten-strong ANPR unit, said the cameras were the latest weapon in the force's war against criminals.

He said: "The cameras are recognised nationally as an extremely effective tool in fighting crime. Last year alone in Sussex the unit made 400 arrests and seized criminal assets worth £300,000.

"The aim is basically to deny criminals the use of our roads. By doing this we can severely limit their movements. We are targeting the people who terrorise our communities - drug dealers, violent offenders, persistent burglars - these are the sort of criminals we are after.

"The cameras are also being fitted to road policing cars in every area in Sussex, so it will be a three-pronged system. The message is clear - do not come to Sussex and commit crime."

Mobile units fitted with the cameras have been used in the county since 2002. The systems were originally developed for counter-terrorism work, and have become an integral part of the security operation for Government party conferences in Brighton.

While in place during the Labour Party conference in 2005 they led to the arrest of 100 drivers for offences including driving while disqualified, burglary, drunk and disorderly, drugs, and theft of petrol.

The Sussex team has previously supported other security operations in London, around Heathrow airport, and during the G8 conference of world leaders at Gleneagles.

With 350 CCTV cameras and 120 speed and traffic light cameras already in use in the county, claims of a creeping Orwellian state have been denied.

Former city council leader Ken Bodfish, who sits on the board of the police authority, backed the decision to bring them in.

He said: "One should always be concerned about civil liberties but on the other hand, we live in an age of criminals and terrorists and these cameras are effective in dealing with this. The reality is that we live in a world where you are captured on camera 300 times a day."

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