How to integrate license plate readers in real-time crime centers (RTCC)
Using mobile and fixed LPRs to help prevent and solve crime
A few years ago, I helped a police unit track a large drug-related shipment coming from the mid-west to Arizona. The criminal organization was very savvy to police tactics, investigative techniques and civil asset forfeiture laws thanks to a few defense attorneys who were guiding part of their operation. Because of the organization's detailed knowledge of law enforcement, we needed to find a key to help unlock the intricacies of their group.
License plate reader (LPR) data was our key. We could request data from LPRs sporadically placed in plain view throughout the major interstate highways like we always did. While we were pulling LPR data, our confidential informant (CI) kept us up to date with the general movement of the shipment.
"He's in Texas," texted the CI.
How was that possible? We placed several LPR requests with our state and federal partners, but we did not receive any LPR returns east of Texas.
"Now he's in New Mexico," texted the CI.
At this point, we only received one LPR hit since Texas. Why weren’t we receiving this information?
One last time the CI text, "He just landed outside of Glendale [Arizona] and is awaiting instructions."
We lost the shipment. The case agent immediately got on the phone with his federal partners to ask why he never received LPR data for the shipment. They chuckled while saying, "because he never traveled on those highways."
Criminals are quick adapters. They find kinks in their plan and fix them as they go without worrying about internal bureaucratic bickering or politics. The government, on the other hand, is slow to change, and criminals know this. The criminal organization we were tracking found out police were using LPR data from highways. Instead of complaining about it, they simply changed their driving patterns to avoid driving on those highways.
Fortunately, most agencies now realize that police investigation techniques need to change faster to keep up with adaptive criminals. And the best way to keep up with these criminals is through the use of real-time crime centers (RTCC).
RTCCs provide real-time information to those who need it like patrol, detectives and administration. RTCCs use various tools to catch bad guys, reduce crime and improve city services. The best and most useful tool is the LPR system.
But before your agency purchases LPR equipment, consider the following.
KNOW THE AGENCY’S GOALS
Long before an agency sends out purchase orders and quotes for LPR equipment and software, they should have a solid understanding of the RTCC's goals.
A simple goal may be to relay real-time information to patrol and detectives – the foot soldiers in the battle against crime. More specific goals may be best met by physical placement of LPR equipment.
The easiest way to know where to place your LPR is to know and understand what type of crime the agency is trying to solve:
- Fixed-mounted systems are great for crime prevention in high burglary areas, drug and prostitution corridors, or violent offense hotspots. Remember, criminals know where police place these systems since they are typically fixed to a traffic signal.
- Mobile LPR systems are fantastic for criminal apprehension. They can be conveniently moved when needed, tucked away for partial concealment, or placed out in the open as a deterrence. Mobile systems are perfect for special projects, stolen vehicle hotspots, and even civil engineering and traffic control monitoring.
- Vehicle-mounted LPR systems are used to catch criminals during routine patrol operations. These units mount directly on any patrol car allowing the officer to find stolen or wanted vehicles while they are performing their normal assigned duties.
- Covert LPRs are used for undercover investigations. They are smaller, can be placed in covert areas and are perfect for illegal street racing cases, kidnapping and homicide investigations, and undercover drug and human trafficking operations.
An agency's goals should also include multi-agency partnerships and the needs of the entire community, not just a localized area.
Once the agency understands its goals, it will make purchasing, placement and integration decisions much easier.
KNOW THE CRIMINAL TARGETS
I am a firm believer in the power of an Organized Crime Unit working with a separate Intelligence Unit like a multi-agency Fusion Center. Both units feed information to the RTCC on potential targets. Police dispatch, an often-forgotten source of real-time data, can monitor 911 calls and send valuable information directly to the RTCC for quick intel.
The Organized Crime Unit understands the criminal networks working in their area, the Intelligence Unit has historical and recent crime-data, and dispatch has real-time call data. Working together, the agency can identify the exact location for fix-mounted LPRs (for high-crime or high-traffic areas), mobile units (for special projects), vehicle-mounted (for fluid cases like kidnappings), or covert (for undercover operations).
The RTCC will compile all the LPR data from the different types of LPR units for quick dissemination. If any investigative issues are found along the way, the specific units can quickly make the changes.
KNOW HOW TO WORK WITH OTHERS
My mother always told me, "if you don't know how to play with others, they won't play with you." Police work should be fun, and the easiest way to make police work fun is to work with others. Few police officers like to work alone.
RTCCs feed information to those who need it, not selfishly horde it. Agencies should collaborate, not only because it is fun, but because it is more effective and efficient. Remember, criminals could care less about city boundaries and jurisdiction.
The best reason to work with other agencies is to have access to their data. Data from other agencies can guide an RTCC on where it needs to focus its efforts and, more importantly, where the administrators need to place the LPRs.
LPRs are the best, most versatile technology options available for law enforcement, and a must-have purchase for every RTCC. If the unit I helped had LPR data relayed through an RTCC, we could have apprehended the suspects. More importantly, we could have identified other criminal targets and dismantled another criminal organization. LPR data with an RTCC, in this case, was the key that we didn't have.