Officer on patrol using LPR.
PHOTO TODD ANDERSON
FEATURED IN INVESTIGATION
The shouts on the radio are deafening. Multiple units have just taken rounds from a suspect who is now fleeing in a white Nissan SUV.
Officers lose the SUV after their patrol car becomes disabled in the intersection. Two of the officers have been critically wounded and are being raced to the hospital. Responding units are locking down the crime scene and searching for the suspect and his vehicle.
Prior to the shooting, the officers who conducted the original t-stop ran the plate over the air and the return came back to a 2001 Nissan “UT” registered to a subject in Long Beach. Officers immediately locked down the area around the vehicle’s registered owner’s address, but the vehicle was nowhere to be found.
So what would you give in such an instance to have better description or even a photo of the suspect vehicle? What exactly is a “UT”?
In this case, I was able to run the suspect vehicle’s plate in our automated license plate recognition (LPR) database and locate a photo of the suspect vehicle. It showed a white Nissan Pathfinder with tinted windows and a green bumper sticker on the left rear bumper. It was last seen parked in front of the registered owner’s address. Officers now knew exactly what they were looking for.
Many departments across this country have invested in a relatively new technology called LPR in the past few years. Unfortunately, many may not be utilizing it to its full potential.
In my opinion, LPR is one of the most valuable tools added to the law enforcement arsenal in the past 20 years. Agencies are just now starting to appreciate the benefits the systems bring to us. The obvious benefits have been touted in every law enforcement magazine, including this one: Run thousands of plates per shift, locate AMBER-alert vehicles, locate wanted and stolen vehicles, and increased officer safety. However, it’s the not-so-obvious uses that will help your agency derive the most long-term benefits.
The Long Beach (Calif.) Police Department (LBPD) has been using LPR technology since late 2005. LPR was initially brought to my attention in an article I read in the Los Angeles Times about a new technology that the Los Angeles Police Department was testing. I was intrigued and received permission to do some further investigation. A few months later, the LBPD purchased four first-generation LPR units from Pips Technology, now Federal Signal.
Since then, LPR technology, both in-car and the analytical software, have become more user friendly and effective. When we first started, the databases had to be downloaded manually from the Internet, converted into the right format and then loaded onto a USB flash drive to be taken to the car. Once there, the user might have to wait up to 10 minutes to upload the new databases and download the collected data onto the drive.
I’ve been a cop for more than 16 years, and one thing I’ve learned: If it involves a cop, a patrol car and a computer, it had better work as advertised or officers will label it a piece of junk—or worse. If the system is slow, difficult to use or involves too many steps, either it won’t get used or it won’t realize its full potential. I can’t even begin to imagine how much data got lost on USB drives between the cars and the office.
The current LPR equipment is pretty much “cop-proof.” Our second-generation LPR equipment is connected to our mobile data computer (MDC), has real-time wireless connectivity and is able to automatically upload and download data every 15 seconds. We’ve created multiple databases that automatically update themselves on a regular basis (every one to six hours, depending on the database). The officer doesn’t even need to hit a button to begin the process.
We’ve since grown our LPR fleet to 12 vehicles and have it deployed on marked police cars assigned to our Patrol Divisions, as well as on plain cars assigned to our Gang and Violent Crimes Division, Auto Theft Unit and on our parking enforcement vehicles. We are currently working on expanding into fixed cameras located at key locations in the city.
The LBPD uses the California Department of Justice’s LPR databases to check for stolen vehicles and for wanted felony vehicles. In addition, we’ve created multiple local databases that are automatically updated every hour. These include local stolen vehicles, a 24-hour “hot sheet” (vehicles used in the commission of a crime), vehicles with five or more outstanding parking tickets to the same registered owner and “wanted by detectives” (vehicles wanted by investigators, who are notified automatically by e-mail when the plate is seen).
The results we have experienced with LPR have been phenomenal, to say the least. Since deploying the technology in December 2005 we’ve:
- Read 15,139,049 plates;
- Recovered 1,383 stolen vehicles;
- Arrested 211 people;
- Recovered 33 wanted felony vehicles;
- Recovered 108 vehicles used in the commission of crimes; and
- Impounded 2,432 vehicles with outstanding parking tickets totaling in excess of $1,193,977.
Having upgraded to a larger server, we currently retain about a year’s worth of data, which is about 6 million reads. These reads are then deleted as space is required. The LPR Back Office System Server (BOSS) is accessible from any of our PD computers, as well as from the patrol cars. This data is specifically for law enforcement use and protected by user names and passwords.
The data in BOSS includes a photo of each plate, an overview photo of the vehicle, its GPS coordinates, time and date stamp, and the user that collected the read. This data is available to officers and detectives and can be searched for particular plates (including partial), address, radius around an address, date and time, users or comments added by the user. The printable results can then be mapped.
In addition, the BOSS allows police departments using the Federal Signal system to share their collected data. We currently have data-sharing agreements in place for four other local agencies. This feature will prove invaluable as additional police departments acquire the technology. As we all know, the bad guys don’t limit themselves to the borders of our towns and cities. Neither should we.
A Dynamic Tool
I must admit, for the first two years I was managing our LPR system, I was missing the boat. The data collected by the LPR and managed by the BOSS allows for users to search the collected data and analyze it by date, time, location, etc. This trove of data we were collecting was used to track stats and generate reports on the productivity of the LPR. We had a small spot on a shared computer server that we used to store collected data.
After using the system to locate the Nissan Pathfinder from the incident described at the beginning of this article, the real value of the system became clear to me: Use the collected data to solve crimes.
Officers in the field, dispatchers in the communications center and detectives in the office have really taken to using our LPR data to help solve crimes. I’d even go as far to say that it might be the most used database in our department. I want to share some of the ways our officers have used the BOSS to produce amazing results. The names, dates, plates and circumstances have been tweaked to protect the innocent, but I’m sure you’ll get the idea.
Partial plates: A local liquor store was robbed and multiple victims had been shot. A witness provided suspect descriptions as well as a partial plate on a silver Ford Mustang they had fled in. The communications center used the BOSS to locate the complete plate of the suspect vehicle by matching the partial with a vehicle seen by the LPR system months before. LBPD gang detectives identified the registered owner as a local gang member and completed a six-pack with his photo. He was positively identified as one of the shooters.
Gang units set up on the residence of the gangster, and multiple suspects were eventually arrested. The search warrant produced the stolen cash, clothing worn in the robbery and the gun used in the crime. LPR provided the complete plate and the photo of the car that the gang unit used to solve the attempted murder and robbery.
Locating wanted suspects: Long Beach Forgery Fraud detectives and U.S. Postal Inspectors had been investigating a foreign national suspected of numerous federal bank fraud, aggravated identity theft and access device fraud violations. After running the suspect’s vehicle in BOSS, it was located in the L.A. County Sheriff’s database, seen a total of 14 times. Detectives narrowed the location to a likely residence in the city of Paramount. Postal inspectors, using our supplied LPR data, located the car, and the suspect was arrested. LPR provided investigators with multiple locations to examine and a photo of the vehicle they were looking for.
Crime scene documentation: LBPD Violent Crimes detectives and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department Bomb Squad were called out to a local Jewish temple regarding a suspicious package that had been left next to the front door. The package was wrapped in newspaper that included articles about the recent bombing of the Gaza Strip. Armed with very limited information, detectives requested an LPR-equipped unit drive the streets surrounding the temple in an effort to collect the plates of vehicles in the area. Later, video of the incident identified a possible suspect vehicle as a white 1950s sedan. Detectives were able to review reads in BOSS and identify the proper vehicle, which had been parked in the area when the incident occurred.
This type of documentation would be ideal for homicide investigations, kidnappings, child abductions, etc. Tip: Ensure your LPR unit documents crime scenes. The data you collect just might be the key to solving the case.
Solving crimes: The body of the victim had been locked in his apartment for days. The upscale downtown area where he was living was not the typical place in which murders occur. During the investigation, the victim’s car was found to be missing from the parking garage. Officers used the BOSS to run the victim’s license plate and saw that it had been seen by the LPR system numerous times after the time of death of the victim. Investigators were able to locate the vehicle in an area of North Long Beach that would not have been an obvious place to go look. Detectives set up surveillance on the car, and a suspect was soon in custody. The LPR data was directly responsible for giving the investigators a location to look for the vehicle. Without it, who knows how long it would have been before the car had been located.
These are just a few examples of the way LPR can be used to assist officers and detectives with clues to solve crime. The LBPD has been using LPR for this purpose for at least the past two years, and we have no shortage of success stories.
The time to expand the use of LPR is upon us. Departments around the country are seeing the benefit and are now willing to move forward with purchases. Don’t limit the crime-fighting potential of the system: Use LPR to find your stolen vehicles, but don’t forget to use the database as well.
As with any law enforcement database, we must be responsible with the information that we’re collecting. Privacy advocates are concerned about the collection of this information and are watching what and how we’re using it. The information is to be protected and used only on a “need to know/right to know” basis.
LPR is not the holy grail of crime fighting, but is definitely an effective and underutilized tool. If your department has been forward thinking enough to invest in the technology, don’t miss out on the opportunity to take advantage of its full law enforcement potential.