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Florida Sheriff Says License Plate Readers Led to Crime Drop

The 30 license plate readers placed throughout St. Johns County, Fla., have lowered crime rate and helped locate 81 stolen cars, 57 stolen tags, 27 convicts, and 11 missing people, according to the sheriff's office.

(TNS) — With news that license plate readers new to St. Johns County, Fla., are likely linked to a significant drop in certain crimes, officials say that, while new crime-fighting technology is great and does make their jobs easier, it is not going to replace the need for officers on the street.

"They are a force multiplier," St. Johns County Sheriff's Office spokesman Chuck Mulligan said Thursday of the new license plate readers, or LPRs, recently put to use.

The devices — 30 of them now — are thought to have contributed to a nearly 50 percent reduction in car burglaries here in the first half of this year as compared to the same period in 2017.

Mulligan provided other numbers on Thursday also linked to the devices that scan tags on public roads looking for plates flagged as being linked to serious crimes or missing people.

Since the beginning of a pilot program in January and through the full implementation of the 30 devices, they have been credited with locating 81 cars flagged as stolen and 57 stolen tags as well as aided in the arrest of 27 people listed as wanted and the location of 11 missing or endangered people.

That's because the devices do nothing but look for tags that have been flagged in a database for being associated with such things, Mulligan explained. And that is quite a departure from the way things used to be.

Mulligan said deputies used to be given a dozen or so vehicle descriptions or plate numbers to be on the lookout for at the beginning of a shift. On the next shift they would get new ones. The numbers would add up and some would be subtracted as cases got resolved.

"The human would not be able to process that kind of data," he said.

With the LPRs in place it's "like having 30 deputies out there serving one function."

That's the type of advancement that law enforcement here hasn't seen since the upgrade of the county's radio system to the 800-MHz system in use today, Mulligan said.

There's other technology also getting layered in, like "speed trailers" that monitor motorists' speeds, flash warnings and collect data in areas where authorities are worried about speeding. But Mulligan said those have less to do with enforcement than they do with creating awareness about a problem.

The St. Augustine Police Department has also put items in place over the past year and is exploring ways to possibly use LPR technology as well.

The agency doesn't have the readers, but the city uses them for parking enforcement, Chief Barry Fox said.

None of the information scanned or collected through those devices go through his department, he said, but he is interested in possibly "getting in the chain of information" so his officers can be alerted if they happen upon a tag that is flagged as wanted in some way.

While he did not offer a timeline as to when that may happen, he did talk a little on Thursday about the addition of security cameras, about a year ago, in certain areas downtown, something that he said is helping as a deterrent and in information gathering.

"We want people to know they are out there," he said of the cameras added to public spaces as part of a partnership with the National Park Service and Flagler College.

While the feeds from those cameras do come directly into the Police Department's communication center, they are not necessarily continuously monitored for the purpose of identifying problems or generating a call.

They are recording though.

"So if something does happen we can go back and take a look," Fox said.

But that still requires officers to respond to the original call and follow up with any investigation if necessary.

Mulligan said much the same thing about his agency's recent technological advances.

"LPRs are not going to replace the human element in law enforcement," he said.

And while having devices that do nothing but look for flagged vehicles certainly increases efficiency in certain areas, Mulligan said they, or any other technology, will not likely eliminate the need for additional deputies as the county continues to grow.

"We respond to may calls that are not criminal in nature," he pointed out.

They also deal with highly emotional situations, like domestic violence calls, where there is an element of "human need."

"Technology can't respond to that," he said.

©2018 The St. Augustine Record, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.