Penn. department may be first in state to use license plate technology

By Moriah Balingit
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

MT. LEBANON, Penn. — Perched atop the Mt. Lebanon Police Department's traffic enforcement vehicle are two cameras that look like pairs of robot eyes.

They're watching passing motorists and parallel parked cars, photographing their license plates then comparing the numbers to a nationwide database of cars connected with crimes and ­­-- in the case of Mt. Lebanon -- a list of local parking scofflaws.

The system is called Automatic License Plate Reader technology, a tool that law enforcement units in the United States have used since 2001. Since then, the largest vendor, PIPS Technology, has furnished more than 400 agencies nationwide with systems.

Mt. Lebanon is the first department in the county and may be the only agency in the state to use the system, which vendor Vigilant Video gave it on a trial basis.

With the recent release of federal Justice Assistance Grants to local police departments, Brian Shockley, of PIPS, said his company has gotten far more inquiries from small departments, which might previously have found the $25,000 price tag too much to bear.

Locally, Moon Police Chief Leo P. McCarthy is looking into spending the $15,623 he's eligible to receive on an ALPR system to help catch drug dealers there.

The City of Pittsburgh announced last week that it will purchase 48 fixed cameras with ALPR technology to install on roadways connected to Downtown with the help of a Department of Homeland Security grant.

Homestead police also may get fixed ALPR cameras for surveillance at the Waterfront shopping center.

Agencies across the United States have lauded the system for enhancing criminal investigations.

In Los Angeles County and in Cincinnati, police said they use data collected from the devices to track down murder suspects. The Long Beach Police Department has recovered nearly 1,300 stolen vehicles and arrested 208 people in three years from hits in the system.

In Mt. Lebanon, police have much more modest aspirations for the device, at least for now. The vehicle that's equipped with ALPR is assigned to Officer Thomas "Chip" Sanders, the department's sole traffic unit officer, and is linked to a list of people with several unpaid parking tickets.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Officer Sanders was barely a quarter-mile out of the parking lot when his laptop "dinged," alerting him of two hits. After verifying the numbers with a physical list, he said he'd have the vehicles towed.

Other departments, including the one in Long Beach, have used the device to track down scofflaws, impounding more than 700 vehicles in the past three years to collect fines, boosting the city's parking ticket revenue, said Sgt. Christopher Morgan.

But sniffing out parking scofflaws isn't the only thing Officer Sanders is doing. The system also is hooked up to the National Criminal Information Clearinghouse, a national registry of license plates that contains about 897,000 plates of vehicles connected to a range of crimes and persons of interest.

While prowling for scofflaws last month, Officer Sanders got a hit on the NCIC "hot list" for someone on the terrorist watch list. It came with a message to notify the FBI.

"The potential is fantastic," he said. "It can be anything from a parking ticket to a ... terrorist."

The surveillance data collected by ALPR cameras has provided key information in investigations long after the vehicle has passed a camera. ALPR devices record license plate photos along with the time and Global Positioning System coordinates of where the plate was observed.

In Los Angeles County, the sheriff's department had a partial license plate number and a description of a car seen leaving the scene of a gang shooting. It did a search of its database and tracked the car to a residence that had recently been passed by a patrol car with the camera. The murder suspect was found there.

"Data-mining has been really helpful in solving homicides and other cases for us. It's a lead for our detectives to follow up on," said Sgt. John Gaw of that sheriff's department. "[It] gives us the whole plate along with a picture of the vehicle."

Officer Sanders said this sort of surveillance information could be used to catch thieves who target a particular area heavily for a period. Cameras could be checked to see whether an out-of-town vehicle has been in an area roughly around the times of break-ins and potentially give police a lead.

But the surveillance capabilities of ALPR technologies has some worried.

"This could become a form of [routine] surveillance ... simply obtaining information without any purpose," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

He cautioned that the government needs to formulate clear boundaries on how long the information is kept and for what it can be used to prevent its abuse.

Law enforcement units counter that it's just "giving you more eyes," and note that they are already able to do what the ALPR does -- albeit in a more inefficient manner -- by manually typing license plate numbers into their in-car computers.

"This just gives you a tool to start an investigation," Officer Sanders said.

Officers might run only 100 or so license plates in a shift, but the ALPR system will record 7,500 plates in just a couple of hours.

Officer Sanders hopes that eventually the ALPR device will be able to fish out cars with expired tags, because they're difficult to see with the naked eye, or suspended registrations.

This would give him cause to pull over, impound and search far more vehicles, which could contain contraband. He called it "another avenue to get into the car."

This, too, concerns Mr. Rotenberg, who said ALPR "creates an enormous opportunity to stop people who might not otherwise be stopped."

Mr. Rotenberg said that record accuracy also has been an issue, even with national databases. In a recent case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that anything recovered from a search prompted by bad information is admissible in court.

"The likelihood will evolve that a lot of innocent people are stopped," he said.

Police departments, including Mt. Lebanon's, have tried to counter discrepancies in the databases by instituting protocol requiring the police to double and triple check the information collected by ALPR.

Officers there must first verify that the camera read the number correctly, then type it into the mobile data terminal, which has a more current database. To make an arrest, they have to verify the information with the agency that entered it.

Still, for all ALPR's limitations, Officer Sanders said he's excited about the possibilities it could provide for his department.

If all departments had ALPR, he said, "then the net out there would be astronomical."

Copyright 2009 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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