Eyeing Auto Thieves

Plate-reading technology gives police a new 'vision' in patrolling.

by / July 31, 2006

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.

The camera sends the image to a CPU running Windows XP -- for instance, a laptop such as a Panasonic Toughbook, which is what Anne Arundel County police use. When the system discovers a match, a window pops up with a photo of the vehicle and its license plate number, and an audio alarm alerts the officer.

The DataWorks Plus system can be linked to as many as 10 databases.

Anne Arundel police linked its to just one -- the FBI's National Crime Information Center database of stolen vehicles. The system can be used to look for vehicles involved in child abductions or other crimes by entering a license plate number and having the system search for it.

The officer can go about his or her regular duties and let the system deal with license plate scanning. It's a far cry from the normal procedure of randomly trying to locate stolen vehicles.

"The nice thing about it is it can be in a nonvisible mode on the screen," Oby said. "The officer can be doing all his regular duties and responsibilities. When [the system] hits something, a new window will pop up on his mobile data terminal and an audio alert will go off and he can take the appropriate action."

No 20/20 Vision
The system, like the vision of an officer scrutinizing license plates all day, isn't perfect in picking out license plate numbers. And sometimes the camera can't read all of the numbers.

"Absolutely there are mistakes made," Oby said. "Just like when you are trying to drive down a street and read a sign or a tag, you're going to make mistakes, and the machine will, too. There could be snow; there could be ice or a trailer hitch; mud," covering one or more of the license plate numbers.

Oby said that the system could be set up to alert the officer only when a certain threshold has been reached, such as if the probability of the match is at least 90 percent. In any case, the officer must double check to make sure that the system isn't mistaken.

"This is basically to develop reasonable suspicion," Oby said, adding that before the officer hits the sirens and pulls the driver over, he or she is told to run the vehicle's license plate through manually and verify that it matches a stolen vehicle report.

Another situation that results in false positives is the system's inability to recognize out-of-state plates.

"Any time we get a response from the automatic plate recognition system, it's going to have to be verified anyway," Cvetan said. "It's more of an alert or indication to look out for this vehicle, and attempt to verify that hit off the vehicle."

Cvetan said the Ohio State Police are still testing the system to decide whether to add more plate recognition systems. "We haven't experienced any difficulties, but we're still in the process of evaluating it to make sure this is technology that will benefit us." He said they are also waiting to see if the price drops.

"The problem with introducing a new technology to law enforcement is that, like any new technology, it's very difficult to get it out," Oby said. "They have to get money in the budget; they want to know who else is using it first. But it's starting to take off."
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor