License plate recognition (LPR) units have rapidly become popular, beneficial technology for law enforcement. Seldom have we seen a single piece of equipment deployed so quickly and with such dramatic impact. Around the country, agencies are using LPR to identify stolen vehicles, target wanted felons and, in some cases, pick off parking scofflaws. The data acquired by LPR—including plate number, time and geo stamp—has proved absolutely invaluable in providing investigators with information to break alibis and identify potential suspect vehicles. LPR is probably the most effective force multiplier ever developed. Using high-tech digital and infrared cameras, combined with complex character recognition algorithms, LPR units can check thousands of plates during a shift, compared to a proficient officer checking a few dozen. At Law Officer, we’ve been providing a regular stream of LPR articles during the past year. You can find all of them by going to LawOfficer.com and typing the keyword “LPR” in the search box.
With progress, though, come potential problems. Any time law enforcement embraces a new technology, there are questions and challenges. Many agencies have struggled with such issues as equipment evaluation and acquisition, data retention, query access and training. There have even been concerns raised by privacy advocates over the technology being overly intrusive and representative of a “Big Brother” approach. Some law enforcement officials have voiced concern that LPR technology could be sidelined if bad practice leads to bad case law or lack of public trust.
Fortunately, both the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) have stepped up to help agencies sort out some of these issues. This month, we’ll give you an overview of these efforts.
Privacy Impact Assessment
Probably the most vexing of the current challenges to LPR is the question of privacy. From a law enforcement perspective, most officials feel LPR is simply an extension of what officers are already authorized to do. After all, officers can observe plates, check them and write them down. LPR does this but leverages technology to make the whole process much faster. Privacy advocates argue that LPR is too good at doing this and strips away the barrier of protection previously provided by the sheer volume of data. They also point out that the cameras are capturing images of vehicles that aren’t suspected of any crime involvement. Because law enforcement’s use of LPR is relatively new, there just hasn’t been enough experience within the criminal justice system to provide clear guidance on the subject.
To get law enforcement started in the right direction and to ensure the issue is appropriately vetted, the IACP—through the Law Enforcement Information Management (LEIM) section—is developing a Privacy Impact Assessment Report for law enforcement license plate reader systems. The report will comprehensively set forth the privacy concerns that should be considered by any criminal justice agency utilizing LPR systems. The plan is for the document to address the privacy impact of the enhanced collection, analysis and dissemination of license plate data, and provide agencies with information they need to ensure that data is managed in a way that meets the need of public safety while protecting privacy interests. There have been several meetings with veteran LPR practitioners from all over the country, along with input from experienced attorneys. Funding for this project is coming from the NIJ. The finished report is scheduled to be released in late 2009.
Policy & Operational Guide
The old adage, “don’t reinvent the wheel,” is certainly one that law enforcement embraces, and there have already been a lot of lessons learned around the country as LPR has been rolled out. No one wants to develop a procurement process from scratch or write a brand new policy without any available frame of reference.
Recognizing that LPR technology comes with a lot of challenges, the NIJ’s Office of Justice Programs has funded the Policy and Operational Guidance for Law Enforcement project. This effort aims to document the real-world LPR implementation challenges and successes experienced by law enforcement agencies, and to identify and disseminate successful LPR initiatives from a lessons-learned perspective. The NIJ has contracted with IACP to handle the effort, which will include input from an experienced focus group, a comprehensive survey and a series of site visits at agencies with LPR experience exceeding one year. These promising leading practices will be analyzed and presented to optimize opportunities for replication and application by agencies across the country. Look for this project to be completed late Q1, 2010.
Data Standardization & Sharing Effort
There are several LPR manufacturers, and each has taken a unique approach to the software that runs and supports their system. Although the information collected by each system is pretty much the same (time, date, geo location, plate number and images), the manner in which each system stores the data and the format of that data varies. Generally, manufacturers promote a proprietary approach because they want to keep their customers and promote the sales of their specific product. However, if this proprietary action continues as a technology proliferates, it results in silos of information that limit the usefulness of the data. This is exactly what happened when computer aided dispatch (CAD) and records management systems (RMS) gained in popularity through the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, many agencies are unable to effectively share CAD or RMS data with an adjoining jurisdiction because their systems are from two different vendors.
Once again, credit goes to the NIJ for realizing both the value of LPR data and the need to develop a standard that could facilitate the data sharing and prevent a future LPR data Tower of Babel. The NIJ’s Information Led Policing section funded an effort to work with a vendor consortium in developing a data schema capable of compliance with Global Justice XML Data Model (GJXDM) standards. This endeavor included working with different vendors with the expectation that all vendors would be encouraged to write to the standard. Vendor participation and cooperation were a key component to making this a success. The initial results of this data sharing effort were demonstrated at the 2009 IACP LEIM conference and progress has definitely been made. Although not yet ready for distribution to the field, the software developed from this effort appears to have great potential, and plans are to take it next to a proof of concept stage. Ultimately, it’s hoped that agencies will be able to share and access data regardless of which vendor is being used. Expect to see benefits from this effort approximately Q1 or Q2, 2010.
Evaluation of a LPR Technology Program
Intuitively and anecdotally, we know LPR technology works and is a powerful crime-fighting tool. But there are times when you have to point to quantitative analysis to gain support for further efforts. Doing this requires an objective scientific approach over a sustained period of time.
The NIJ has partnered with the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) to conduct a thorough analysis of LPR effectiveness. The project focuses on LPR use by the Mesa (Ariz.) Police Department. Baseline data has been collected on hot spots, transit routes and destination points for auto theft activity. GIS/mapping analyses have also been conducted. That information is being combined with areas identified by detectives and patrol officers as having high activity but not showing up in the crime statistics. During 2009, the effort will involve the collection of post-intervention measures, in-depth analysis and a project report outlining the findings. This project should be nearing its conclusion and it’s hoped that the results will provide some of the much needed quantitative data on LPR effectiveness.
Finally, I want to give credit where credit is due. Although there are several people involved in these efforts, there’s one individual who deserves special recognition. Bill Ford, the NIJ’s chief of information and sensors technology division, has been a great advocate for law enforcement’s use of LPR and was one of the first to recognize the need for NIJ leadership in this developing area. I’ve had the opportunity to work with Mr. Ford on more than one occasion and want to acknowledge the support that he’s provided law officers across the country.
We’re just now approaching full stride in the adoption of LPR technology, and there will continue to be challenges as we work through installation, implementation, public opinion and policy issues. Fortunately, there are multiple efforts underway to help ensure that LPR technology is used in a manner that is both effective and within the realm of public acceptance.