License plate reading technology on the rise

Fighting terrorism and handing out traffic tickets may be different levels of crime prevention, but both are being accomplished by American police officers using license-plate-reading camera technology.

Police agencies across the United States have benefited from the success of Automated License Plate Recognition systems, which capture a digital image of a license plate, convert it into alphanumeric characters and cross-check it with several criminal databases.

With police agencies striving to do more with less, this kind of technology allows officers to spend less time performing investigative duties and more time patrolling the streets. The cameras have assisted in national security and homicide cases, but are more frequently used to identify stolen or unregistered vehicles.

While some cameras are set up at stationary points throughout cities, police are finding mobile cameras mounted to police cars to be especially useful. According to Pips Technology Inc., a Tennessee-based leader in ALPR technology, most vehicles can be equipped with up to four cameras and a system that can process up to 3,600 reads per minute, capturing plates at up to 160 mph.

Most outfitted police cars have multiple cameras pointed at different angles so officers rarely need to change their regular driving patterns to effectively use the technology. Once a vehicle is matched with criminal activity, the ALPR system immediately notifies the officer with a red flashing information screen.

The Racine Police Department is currently awaiting an order for the cameras and plans to outfit four squad cars, said Martin Pavilonis, spokesman for RPD. The money for the new system came from a $100,000 federal grant approved as part of Sen. Herb Kohl’s (D-Wis.) crime prevention projects in southeastern Wisconsin.

“It’s a technology that would certainly help us,” Pavilonis said. “It will provide an extra set of eyes and improved processing power.”

The Racine police still use permanent, stationary cameras throughout the city, but Pavilonis said they are only used for general image capturing. He said he foresees the mobile license plate cameras being primarily used in Racine to recover stolen vehicles and inform police of expired or invalid registrations.

The New York Police Department, one of the first agencies to test the product in the U.S., originally saw it as a counterterrorism tool but have also found its value in solving traditional criminal activities. Using 238 license plate readers in the city, NYPD reported reducing the number of stolen cars from nearly 18,000 in 2005, the year before the cameras were implemented, to more than 10,000 in 2010.

However, the ALPR technology has been subject to criticism from civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, saying the surveillance represents an invasion of privacy.

Donna Lieberman, executive director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, believes privacy regulations in this realm need to be updated.

“We don’t know how much information is being recorded and kept, for how long, and by which cameras,” Lieberman said in a New York Times report.

Under current Supreme Court case law, however, it is constitutional to use cameras to check license plates visible on public streets because it does not intrude upon information a person would expect to be private.

Michael McChrystal, a professor of law at Marquette, believes the surveillance is certainly constitutional, but he worries about the erosion of privacy as new surveillance technologies continue to emerge.

“The irony is that our privacy has never been greater so long as no one is paying attention, but if someone is paying attention, all bets are off,” McChrystal said.