April 8, 2008 By Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor
Being caught on camera comes with the territory in the UK, where license plate recognition systems are well established. But now the technology is taking root in the United States.
U.S. police are seeing spectacular results from license plate recognition systems, which extend the reach of police, providing functionality much like an extra officer. Nearly 400 of the 1,800 police agencies in the United States now have at least one license plate reader, and as the word of its potential spreads and prices fall, that number is expected to grow.
Since 1991, Britons have watched as the number of cameras used to keep an eye on the public has grown to more than 4 million. There are more than 200,000 in London alone, and by some estimates, Britons are filmed more than 300 times a day.
In the United States, the technology emerged on toll roads where radio frequency identification (RFID) transponders are used instead of human toll collectors. License plate recognition technology records the identity of motorists who blow through toll plazas without a transponder. Now police departments -- such as those in Los Angeles and Sacramento, Calif. -- use the technology to locate stolen vehicles, and others use it for surveillance.
License plate recognition systems typically consist of cameras mounted on police squad cars or in fixed locations. The cameras are linked to an optical character recognition (OCR) processor that reads the data and compares it to one or more databases. In the event of a "hit" on a license plate in a stolen vehicle database, for example, an alarm alerts officers of the match.
Agencies using the technology say it dramatically increases their ability to spot stolen vehicles, and it may prove even more valuable for other investigative tasks. But the systems aren't cheap -- it's upward of $20,000 to equip a single police cruiser. And privacy advocates worry about what police will do with the license plate data they collect, as agencies ponder its use for everything from catching tax cheats to rounding up parking scofflaws.
The California Highway Patrol was the first to adopt automated license plate recognition (ALPR) systems, according to Brian Shockley, vice president of marketing for PIPS Technology, which manufactures and distributes ALPR technology. "A lot of West Coast agencies are adopting the technology, and there are pockets in Texas, Chicago, Florida, Ohio and New York state."
Without license plate readers, police drive around and type license plate numbers into a laptop or mobile data terminal (MDT), waiting for a hit on a stolen vehicle. Automating that process allows agencies to check many more vehicles, and it frees officers' hands in the process.
And ALPR systems can help in the investigation of more serious crimes too.
In 2005, a trooper on the Pennsylvania Turnpike was alerted by his ALPR of a stolen vehicle. The trooper confirmed the vehicle was stolen and that the three occupants were also wanted for kidnapping and attempted murder. The ALPR system was only in use for a week.
In 2007, in San Jose, Calif., an officer was alerted of a stolen vehicle by his ALPR system. The officer investigated and soon found the vehicle was used in the kidnapping of a 12-year-old girl days earlier. The girl had escaped, and because of the ALPR, the suspect was arrested and charged with kidnapping and forcible child molestation.
That same year in Roseville, Calif., witnesses to a hit-and-run that killed a 76-year-old man offered police a partial license plate number. Police used their ALPR system to query the back-office software on the partial plate and the location of the hit within a 10-mile radius. They came up with a few results, one of which led to a felony hit-and-run arrest.