After switching to one-person patrol cars decades ago, police officers and sheriff s deputies have become multi-tasking machines. Not only do you have to drive safely, listen to the radio, respond to dispatched calls via computer, talk on the cell phone, constantly scan for suspicious activity and keep your situational awareness antennae up at all times, you are also expected to write traffic tickets and fight crime!
Well, how would you like to go back to a two-person car and get a partner who would relieve a big part of the burden of checking for suspicious vehicles, stolen cars, license plates, outstanding unpaid parking citations, and wanted felons, without rambling on about a sports team or a TV show?
Welcome to the world of Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR). ALPR technology has been around for a few years and is just starting to mature and gain acceptance as a valuable aid in a department s investigative toolkit. More importantly, it s also seen as a way to increase revenue related to traffic and parking citations and vehicle impounds, as well as provide data officers can mine for ongoing investigations in other areas such as violent crimes, burglaries or any other targeted criminal activities.
One agency that adopted ALPR technology early on is the 1,000-strong Long Beach (Calif.) Police Department. The City of Long Beach covers just over 50 square miles and is located in the southern region of Los Angeles County. With a population of almost half a million residents, more than 5 million tourists a year, and the busiest shipping port on the West Coast, LBPD has a high activity level to say the least.
Three years ago, while assigned as an aide to one of the department s deputy chiefs, Sergeant Chris Morgan saw a news article about a new type of technology that could read and compare more than 4,000 license plates an hour in real time without operator assistance. The deputy chief directed Morgan to find out more about the technology, and the rest is history.
The concept is pretty simple: Use special cameras to take pictures of vehicle license plates, and then have optical character recognition (OCR) software read the plate number and compare it to wanted vehicle databases. If the vehicle is stolen, was used in the commission of a crime, has unpaid parking citations or just about anything else law enforcement tracks, the software notifies the patrol officer. Depending on the type of hit, the vehicle can be stopped, followed and handled appropriately. While the comparative data isn t live or up to the minute, new data can be uploaded to the ALPR vehicle s database every few minutes, which is as close to real time as currently exists. (ALPRs don t check against live databases because the frequency of inquiry would exceed the capability of those databases to respond.)
A typical ALPR system employs three camera housings located on the sides and front of the roof-mounted light bar. Two cameras, an infrared (IR) camera and a color camera, sit inside each housing. The IR camera illuminates the license plate, and the color camera takes a picture of the plate and the vehicle. The OCR software then goes to work. A properly calibrated setup can read up to 4,000 plates per hour.
As a comparison, an officer who did nothing but enter license plate numbers into a computer could probably do about 150-200 plates in an hour. Not even close to an ALPR system.
There s no perfect weapon, system or tool in law enforcement, and ALPR is no different. Non-reflective plates, extremely dirty or mutilated plates, plate covers, trailer hitches, and ice and snow can cause problems for the system. And because each ALPR system is calibrated to work with a particular state s automobile plates, out of state and motorcycle plates can be read, but accuracy is usually diminished. Even at the standard 80 85 percent accuracy rate, the high volume of license plates read per hour remains many times more than a human being could read. Most systems don t differentiate states though, so an officer has to visually confirm the information if a hit is made.
The LBPD deploys seven ALPR systems, four on marked patrol vehicles, one on an unmarked detective vehicle and one on a parking enforcement vehicle. The seventh is a portable system for use at DUI checkpoints, large events or major crime scenes.
I was able to ride with Morgan in an ALPR-equipped marked vehicle to see how the system worked in the real world. For our demonstration, we set the monitor to view the picture-taking process, which would normally be performed in the background of the in-car console. Morgan said the ALPR system is best deployed with the busiest car in the beat sector to allow for a maximum number of license plate reads. Ultimately, ALPR technology is all about the numbers, which makes perfect sense. The more vehicle plates read, the higher the chance a hit will occur on one of the databases. And remember, all of these plates are being run without any effort on the part of the officer.
LBPD searches multiple databases, including Department of Justice stolen and felony vehicles, and Long Beach s own 24-hour hot sheet, local stolen list and a database of all vehicles with five or more unpaid parking citations, also known as the scofflaw database.
As we rode up and down different streets, the ALPR software took picture after picture of vehicles we passed going the same direction and vehicles passing us in the opposite direction. To demonstrate how the system works when a hit is made, Morgan used the software s manual plate-entry feature to enter the license number of a car we had just passed (and the ALPR system captured) into the database. We followed the car for a few minutes to allow for the short lag time required for the captured information to upload to the department server via wireless modem. Sure as shootin , in a few minutes when we passed the same vehicle, a muted audible alarm that sounds like a police siren alerted us that the vehicle was wanted. Very cool!
To download any new data, all of Long Beach s ALPR vehicles have wireless cellular modems to connect to the database servers every few seconds. When the department first got the ALPR system, officers had to download the data from the servers onto USB thumb drives and manually upload the data onto the vehicle s database prior to each shift. The wireless modems eliminate the need for the officers to do any system prep. All they have to do is log into the system at the start of each shift and log out at the end.
Cruising for Cash
The City of Long Beach has its own Fleet Services division that handles all vehicle tows and impounds for the police department. As with most cities, budget resources are tight, and fiscal innovation is standard operating procedure. To showcase the revenue producing potential of an ALPR system, the LBPD deployed two ALPR-equipped vehicles for six hours each on midnight shifts for a 30-day period. Their mission: cruise up and down the streets of the city, scan license plates and compare against the scofflaw database of vehicles that had five or more unpaid parking citations.
The results will probably shock you: In the one-month test period, the LBPD impounded more than 300 scofflaw vehicles with five or more unpaid citations. The revenue? More than $200,000 in previously unpaid parking tickets and vehicle impound fees.
Needless to say, this got the city s and police administration s attention. As a result, Fleet Services agreed to purchase another dedicated ALPR system for the police department that focuses on parking and license tag violations.
Added revenues aside, Morgan told me the biggest benefit to ALPR technology was data mining. Think about it: Your agency captures thousands of license plates per hour, and the ALPR software not only stores the plate number, but provides a GPS coordinate, date/time stamp and a picture of the vehicle. The GPS coordinates can be mapped and tied to multiple captures of the same license plate and show a vehicle s movement patterns, areas and times. Does this sound like information your violent-crimes detectives would want if they have a partial plate from a vehicle fleeing a robbery scene? Hell yes!
In fact, numerous felony crimes have been solved by Long Beach s investigative teams using information gleaned from the ALPR system. Since the LBPD started deploying the ALPR technology in December 2005, more than 4.4 million plates have been checked, 1,992 lost or stolen license plates have been identified, 756 stolen vehicles have been recovered and 136 suspects have been arrested. The final kicker: Auto thefts are down 12.3 percent the lowest number since 1970.
After careful evaluation of various products and consulting with agencies using the technology, the LBPD chose a system from PIPS Technology (www.pipstechnology.com). According to Morgan, three years ago there were only a handful of companies in the ALPR arena. Today, there are more than a dozen, so the evaluation process may prove more difficult.
Morgan also says there are some key considerations to ensure your ALPR acquisition process is as painless as possible:
1) Determine who will manage the ALPR program. Are sworn officers or the IT department going to be in charge? Morgan feels a collaboration between sworn personnel and IT is the best way to go. The reality is that the system is only as good as the data it accesses. Leaving the data integration to the IT professionals, but having a few officers specially trained to troubleshoot operational issues when IT personnel might not be available makes good sense. If the IT pro on your 20-officer agency is also a sworn officer, that person better get as much vendor-specific training as possible.
2) Integration is a key issue. Does the product interface with the existing in-car computer, database formats and servers your department (and other departments in your area) uses? Will the data automatically download at timed intervals over wireless modems, or will officers have to physically upload information to the vehicle s database at the start of each shift? In Morgan s experience, the less workload for the officers, the more effective the system will be.
3) What data will your agency use and from where will you get it? Will it be local, regional, statewide or a combination of all three? Are the data formats compatible with the system you want to use? Answering these questions is crucial before committing to any vendor s product.
4) What reputation does the vendor have in terms of customer support? Have you asked for a referral list of other police agencies using the ALPR system you re interested in? Have you called the agencies and asked the right questions? The old-boy and -girl network is an important factor in determining how well the adoption of an ALPR system will go at your agency. After the romance of the sales cycle is over, the day will come when you need fast answers when things aren t working as they should and that s the wrong time to find out tech support isn t available on weekends.
The Bottom Line
So, what does an ALPR system cost these days? Most vendor prices range from $15,000 $25,000 dollars per vehicle for a three-camera setup, software and installation. According to Morgan, smaller cities or agencies with tight budgets concerns could opt for a two-camera setup at commensurate cost savings.
While civil libertarians might have some issues with the concept of ALPR, the technology is a tremendous boon to law enforcement and reaps benefits far beyond the arena of vehicle theft and parking citations. And, I m sure if you asked the owners of the 756 stolen cars LBPD has recovered since using ALPR technology, you wouldn t hear a single complaint.
Law Officer greatly appreciates the cooperation of Long Beach Police Department and Sgt. Chris Morgan.
ATOM Imaging - www.atomimaging.com
B&W Automation - www.bwautomation.com
Dataworks Plus - www.digitalcrimescene.com
Genetec - www.genetec.com
G2 Tactics - www.g2tactics.com
Inex Zamir - www.inexzamir.com
NDI Technologies - www.nditech.com
PIPS Technology - www.pipstechnology.com
PlateScan - www.platescan.com
Remington - www.remingtonelsag.com
Vigilant - www.vigilantvideo.com