Monday, October 24, 2011
License plate reader (LPR) technology has been a real game-changer for law enforcement. Across our country, forward-thinking agencies are using LPR equipment to provide meaningful leads and solve crimes. Cops like catching crooks, especially those who thought they’d never be caught. With LPR, a good cop can become a great cop, and a good investigator can become an incredible investigator—great news for the communities they serve.
I’ve been working closely with this technology and the agencies that use it for almost four years. In my opinion, LPR is every bit as impacting to crime fighting as DNA. As good as LPR is, though, some small investments can further improve its baseline utility. You just have to think big picture and leverage your efforts and contacts.
Use the Data!
Let’s start with LPR’s most basic rule: You must retain and use the data that’s captured by the LPR units.
When LPR first came on the scene in the U.S., most agencies bought the technology to address the challenge of auto theft. Later, the investigative value of the data was realized. Today, the majority of agencies retain LPR data. But in my experience, there are still many departments ignoring the significance of that data. LPR isn’t an automated crook finder. The power of the data it provides is derived from careful and deliberate use over time. LPR data can help you know where to look for vehicles, provide incredible power when working with a partial plate and can even give you an actual picture of a wanted car to put on a flyer—but only if you retain and use the data!
Share the Data!
When looking at criminal justice data, a bigger, more inclusive sample is often better. By looking at LPR data that covers a larger area, you often see patterns or are able to access data that you would have otherwise overlooked. For instance, a series of sexual assaults occurring across multiple jurisdictions might be compared against LPR data for those jurisdictions and vehicles common to more than one incident could be considered vehicles of interest for further investigation.
One of the largest and most successful LPR sharing efforts is taking place in a large area encompassing southwestern Ohio, southeastern Indiana and Northern Kentucky. Fifty-five agencies in this region contribute LPR data to a centralized, cloud-based server that’s coordinated by Cincinnati, Ohio, PD. The effort is overseen by Heather Whitton, an analyst at the Cincinnati PD.
According to Whitton, the system relies on four virtual servers: one that serves as a gateway for the incoming data, one reporting server, one to host the LPR application and a Sequel database server that holds the millions of LPR records. A fifth server is in the wings to support email and alert notification capability, as well as other web-based data-sharing that might be desired in the future.
The Cincinnati-based system currently has four fixed LPR cameras sending data directly to the cloud-based servers. A total of 20 fixed cameras are planned and all will be relying on a mesh wireless network to convey the large volume of LPR data.
The mesh system also supports the city’s public safety video system, which currently has 32 cameras strategically placed in key locations throughout the city. More public safety cameras are planned.
One key to the success of the system, according to Whitton, is that each participating agency has a point of contact that’s responsible for their agency’s equipment. Agencies are also responsible for sending their data to the cloud-based regional database with many of them using cellular wireless to do so directly from vehicles. Some agencies with legacy systems are still using end-of-shift downloads to USB drives. If this is the case, the information on the drive is then transferred to an agency server before being sent to the regional server.
The benefit to agencies that send the data directly to the cloud-based system is that they aren’t required to have any type of IT responsibility for the acquired LPR data. In other words, they can concentrate on using their LPR systems in the field, rather than having to spend money and resources on the sometimes challenging IT aspects of servers and data storage.
In Southern California, a similar effort is taking place in the San Diego region. The Automated Regional Justice Information System (ARJIS) has established a regional server that holds data accumulated by agencies throughout the county as well as some fixed cameras in both San Diego and Imperial counties. Some agencies have established data servers that transfer data to the regional server and other agencies send the data directly, thereby negating the need for any type of server back-end.
Since ARJIS provides data access to more than 70 agencies ranging from local probation to three letter federal agencies, the ability to query a regional server for LPR data gathered from multiple jurisdictions is of immense benefit. Put another way, agencies that would never own or operate an LPR system, such as a district attorney investigative unit, can benefit from the regional system.
Combine LPR with Other Systems
In Maryland, the state police have been using LPR since 2005 when they started with a couple of units obtained to fight auto theft. Since then, they’ve aggressively expanded that system. Today, it includes 19 mobile units and one fixed system. More importantly, they’re in the process of networking LPR units across the state.
According to Sgt. Julio Valcarcel, there are 293 cameras statewide, of which 53 are fixed units. Of the 293 cameras, 132 are already tied into the state network with data coming into a central gathering point. The rest of the cameras are being added as time and resources permit.
What makes the Maryland approach unique and incredibly effective is that they’ve recently implemented a statewide e-citation system that compliments the LPR data. The Maryland State Police have a policy of writing “paper” on every traffic stop, meaning that each person contacted by an officer receives either a citation or a warning. Regardless, the contacts are being documented in the e-citation system which now contains nearly two million records. Seventy-six agencies across the state are currently using the e-citation system and more are being added.
The information derived from this system, when used in conjunction with LPR data, synergizes the overall investigative process. The e-citation system is based on a program written by Maryland State Police Sgt. Chris Corea using software framework .NET by Microsoft.
To capture the data in the field, a scanner capable of reading the driver’s license is used. According to Valcarcel, most agencies are using an L-Tron scanner. Gathering data electronically rather than using pen and paper has improved the quality (accuracy) of data capture immensely. In addition, traffic stops are now much more time efficient, averaging about four minutes. As a result, a traffic stop yields more accurate data capture in less time and frees up the officer to conduct other business or initiate another stop. It also gets the officer off of the shoulder more quickly, which improves officer safety.
Violators still receive a paper copy of the citation but now it’s on a specialized thermal paper with the information printed by a Brother PocketJet printer. These tough little printers, previously marketed under the Pentax name, have proven themselves capable of operating in a tough law enforcement environment. Because they don’t use ink and have very few moving parts, reliability is high and very little user attention is required.
One change that had to take place to make this process possible was to eliminate any signature requirement. This was accomplished through legislation that essentially changed the citation to a summons that was certified by the officer as having been served, according to Valcarcel.
You might think that the addition of a scanner and printer to the inside of a patrol car might present problems due to space and safety concerns. “When we deployed our equipment, the big concern was always occupant safety,” said Valcarcel. “We secured them to the console. When you’re retrofitting hundreds of cars, you have to get it right.” Valcarcel said an upfitter in the area, Brekford International, came up with a very effective over-the-seat organizer, which handles the printer and scanner and uses standard USB and power cables.
I’ve had the opportunity to meet with the Maryland State Police team, and what they’re doing is commendable. They’ve taken two different technology platforms and are making effective use of the resulting data in a more comprehensive way. Overall, these systems have simplified processes and made information more readily useable. The resulting data is solving crimes that would previously have been unworkable. Bottom line: It’s clearly a force multiplier.
In Richland Heights, Mo., a man was attacked and robbed as he was walking away from an ATM. A surveillance camera caught a picture of the suspect’s vehicle, but the plate wasn’t visible. The victim was able to provide a small portion of the suspect vehicle’s license plate number, but not enough to run anything through the state registration system. Using the partial plate, investigators checked the agency’s LPR data base and found approximately 700 vehicles of interest.
Scrolling through the returns, they were able to narrow down possible vehicles by looking at the pictures and eliminating those that were inconsistent with the photo obtained from the ATM camera. Going back to the ATM photo, investigators noticed a unique dent on the hood of the suspect vehicle. After that, it was only a matter of using the full plate numbers from the LPR system to track down the right vehicle with the unique dent. Bottom line: Vehicle located, suspect identified and arrested.
Here’s the takeaway: Don’t consider LPR information as a stand-alone source. Work the data in conjunction with other types of technology to effectively synergize your efforts. LPR is incredibly powerful but you can really maximize its effectiveness by following some of the above examples.
How Did They Pay for It?
LPR equipment isn’t cheap, but it probably provides the best return on investment of any technology currently available to law enforcement. Regardless, it has to be paid for, and knowing what other agencies are doing can help.
The large LPR system that forms the three-state, 12-county effort coordinated by Cincinnati PD has been paid for by a combination of State Homeland Security and Urban Area Security Initiative grant monies. Many agencies have participated and contributed some funding and resources. According to CPD’s Heather Whitton, this is important because “everyone has skin in the game.”
In San Diego, the regional LPR server effort run by ARJIS got its start from the Office of National Drug Control Policy/Executive Office of the President, which provided six mobile LPR platforms, several fixed LPR cameras and a base-level server to accommodate the resulting data. After that equipment was in place, Urban Area Security Initiative funding provided for mobile LPR units throughout the region and the expansion of the regional server. In addition, several agencies already had LPR units in place and were using their own servers. Through collaboration with the National Institute of Justice, software called Leopard (LPR Data) was developed and has been used to “push” the agency data to the regional server.
In Maryland, some agencies already had LPR and some were provided LPR capability through grant funding. Bringing it all together in a statewide system was made possible through a combination of state and federal grant funds. The area around Washington, D.C., is known as the National Capital Region (NCR) and the program to integrate LPR efforts throughout the area is known as NCR Net, which has been primarily funded through the use of Urban Area Security Initiative monies. Additional funding came from the Maryland Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, which used a combination of state and federal grant funds in the amount of $2 million to purchase fixed and mobile units. Included in this purchase were 76 mobile units that were distributed to agencies with the requirement that they send the resulting LPR data to the state network.
In reviewing the above, you may notice two common themes. First, Homeland Security funding, regardless of its specific name, has been the primary funding mechanism for all of these efforts. Second, all three of these areas have built upon a collaborative multi-agency cooperative in which the agencies play a significant and participative role. As Whitton put it: It’s important that “everyone have skin in the game.”