How contactless technology can help reduce bias, increase efficiencies and bolster safety
Real-time intelligence makes it easier for officers to be more strategic and safer in how they engage with suspects
By Robert Berman
With calls to defund police departments, technology may help agencies do more with less.
Building on existing investments, newer technologies such as next-generation license plate recognition (LPR) provide departments with real-time intelligence that can help them finesse their suspect engagement policies, speed case resolution and improve efficiencies.
The basic technology around LPR is nothing new ‒ cameras and scanners positioned on squad cars, intersections and light poles became mainstream law enforcement tools in the 1990s. However, more recent innovations are transforming how police approach today’s challenges.
Next-generation LPR: A paradigm shift in policing
Newer LPR systems move beyond simply reading license plate characters. They scan vehicles as they travel through a city then apply artificial intelligence (AI) to look for plates on hotlists. If there’s a match, police officers receive an alert through a web-based portal on their in-car computer, together with an image of the tag and the rear of the vehicle. Dispatchers receive the same alert and can notify officers whether to proceed. With this intelligence, officers can then develop a strategic plan for how to engage the suspect.
A notable success story for the use of this technology is the Mt. Juliet Police Department. In response to an increase in vehicle burglaries, stolen cars and weapons, on April 1, 2020, the department deployed advanced license plate readers (ALPR) at 39 locations in the Nashville suburb.
With its new system, the Mt. Juliet PD has uncovered thousands of dollars’ worth of property, apprehended numerous theft and fraud suspects, and recovered stolen weapons and drugs.
Mt. Juliet PD Captain Tyler Chandler recently told me that the system has introduced a new paradigm shift in policing for his organization. He remarked the technologies make it easier for his officers to be more strategic and safer in how they engage with suspects because they have the intel to determine how best to intercept and apprehend vehicles and suspects in a safer manner.
Saving time and avoiding bias
Software-based technology saves time, too. For example, these forensic tools can process hundreds of thousands of video or image files at high speed – eliminating the need for detectives to sift through hours of footage and speed case resolution. Officers simply need a description of the vehicle, such as “red convertible.” When they type that search term into the system, potential matches are returned. License plate data for these vehicles is then entered into the jurisdiction’s hotlist. When the vehicle(s) passes another camera, officers can quickly, and carefully, intercept the driver.
ALPR also helps eliminate any “implicit bias.” Instead of trying to pinpoint individuals, the system automatically looks for data (not personal characteristics) such as license plate numbers, makes and models, vehicle color and other features. This means officers don’t have to spend time looking for a possible suspect, and most importantly, the balance and respect that exists between police and the communities they serve is maintained.
Affordable crime solving
LPR solutions have traditionally been expensive to implement, but modern contactless policing technologies are surprisingly affordable. Because they connect to existing IP, traffic and security cameras, as well as smartphone cameras – police departments can maximize investments and increase the effectiveness of the technology.
Indeed, this type of technology can be a force multiplier. There’s no hardware overhead and the system software works with existing surveillance investments. There’s no need for additional, costly infrastructure.
Community is key
Any program that law enforcement adopts should be supported by the community.
Initially, Mt. Juliet’s citizens were concerned that they were under surveillance. Cognizant of this, the police department launched a public education initiative to ensure residents understood the system is there only to detect already hot-listed license plates. The Mt. Juliet Police Department also uses its website and social media to keep the public informed of successful apprehensions, crime prevention and restitution for victims.
Once this was made clear, and the department began to see results, the pendulum swung the other way. The community now supports the use of LPR systems.
Overcoming data privacy concerns
Another concern citizens have is how the data captured by these systems is stored and used. It’s a valid concern. Many LPR vendors store license plate data and sell it back to their law enforcement clients or third parties, such as repossession companies and even U.S. Customs and Border Control. This has given the LPR industry a bad name.
To retain the trust of the communities they serve, police departments should closely examine their vendor’s data retention and management policy. Do they align with police or state privacy laws? Where is the data hosted? Who has access to it? Ownership and control of data should ultimately lie with the law enforcement agency, not the vendor.
Furthermore, data should only be shared with other jurisdictions when necessary and in adherence with state data management policies (such as limiting the duration that the data is available for access).
The new standard in contactless policing
Contactless policing technologies like next-generation vehicle recognition solutions are helping improve efficiency, meet budgetary needs, reduce bias, and improve officer and community safety.
About the author
Robert A. Berman has served as Rekor Systems' President and Chief Executive Officer since March 2016.