For police officers, finding a suspected stolen vehicle is a random process that involves a little luck -- it's akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Police officers single out a car they think has been stolen and scan its license plate.

New license-plate-reading technology, however, is taking luck out of the equation by actually hunting for stolen vehicles. The technology scans both moving and parked cars, reads and matches the license plates with stolen or wanted plate numbers in a database, and notifies the officer via an alarm -- all within seconds.

Several police agencies tested the technology, and the initial response is positive.

In Action

The Ohio State Police Department was one of the first agencies to deploy the technology, outfitting a local turnpike with two stationary Remington Elsag license-plate-reading devices in 2004. State police have since recovered 69 stolen vehicles thanks to the system, according to Sgt. Craig Cvetan, a police spokesman.

The Anne Arundel County Police Department in Maryland also deployed one mobile unit on a covert patrol car in January 2006 and had recovered 11 stolen vehicles as of late May 2006. The police department plans to add three more units in coming months, said Sgt. Tom McFarland, adding that those units will be mounted on marked patrol cars.

Many other agencies were preparing to deploy mobile units on squad cars in May 2006, including the Seattle Police Department, which has tested the device and is ready to roll the technology out.

"It reads license plates. It recognizes stolen cars based on information stored in the database," said Sean Whitcomb, a police spokesman, adding that the devices will also give a new dimension to stolen vehicle recovery: the ability to identify parked stolen cars.

"It's going to be the central tool in our fight against auto theft -- more so than a lot of other things that we do -- because it's going to really assist with recovery," Whitcomb said. "Just because a vehicle is stolen doesn't mean it's moving. If we can get this out in the city streets, in the residential neighborhoods, our recovery rate is going to see a significant increase."

A Little Variety

Several vendors manufacture license-plate-reading devices, with some design variations.

DataWorks Plus is a reseller of Pips Technology, which developed Anne Arundel County's system. That system consists of a camera that scans and reads license plates. A squad car can be equipped with up to four cameras that can scan a thousand license plates per hour.

Each camera has three components, explained Doug Oby, director of federal programs at DataWorks Plus. There's an LED infrared component that acts like a flashlight shining on the plate; there's an infrared feature to allow the camera to "see" day or night; and there's a charged-coupled device video camera, which records a color "overview" of the car itself.

The infrared camera finds and reads the plate, Oby said, and then sends the image to an optical character recognition engine, while the color video camera lets the officer see the vehicle's actual characteristics.

"That's the nice thing about our system; we not only tell the officer that a car has just passed you by and we've run the tag against a database, but it's also giving him an overview photo of the vehicle," Oby said. "So now he's looking for a red Mustang or a blue Ford pick-up truck versus trying to find one of seven or eight cars that just passed him."

The system includes a central processing unit (CPU), placed in the squad car's trunk, that's connected to an officer's mobile data terminal. The whole system is installed by the manufacturer and costs $20,000 to $35,000, depending on the number of cameras used.

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor