Plate spotting

LPR units act as mechanical eyes on the road


     Steven Hedley says he didn't even see the truck that night.

     It was pitch black, and he and his partner were two among a few hundred officers spread throughout the City of Atlanta, patrolling as part of a detail night with the Atlanta Police Department in Georgia. The pair was on their way to a road block when an electronic beep registered a passing vehicle tag as a law enforcement-flagged plate.

     The truck, indicated as a car-jacked vehicle, was carrying five passengers, though Hedley and his partner, Ilka Torres, didn't know it at the time.

     "You never know what that car that you're passing is wanted for," Hedley says. "If I did not have the LPR that night, I can only imagine, knowing what I know now, what could have happened to those girls."

The technology at work

     ELSAG's license plate reader system doesn't just read automated plates; its name declares it "hunts" them.

     Some license plate reader (LPR) proponents would go further to personify the technology as an officer itself, constantly surveying for tags, but removed from human elements like fatigue and distraction. It sure beat the manual survey and hard-copy hotlist reference method Hedley and the Atlanta Auto Theft Task Force was used too.

     The new system, the Mobile Plate Hunter-900 from ELSAG North America, uses infrared cameras, which scan for and capture images of characters on plates. The processing unit and software reference the information collected by the camera against preloaded hotlists and sends automatic alerts when flagged plates are recognized.

     "It all starts with the all-seeing eye: That officer on the back of the car that never stops looking and [has] the ability of running dozens and dozens of tags every minute," says Hedley.

     Once the LPR unit identifies a vehicle of interest, officers take the technical element out of it and implement the human element, rerunning the registration and making sure the vehicle is still of interest; still listed as stolen, for example.

     In October 2006, when the LPR unit alerted Hedley and his partner to the hot vehicle, Hedley was still testing the technology out. The equipment was provided by ELSAG North America on a trial basis for the officers to familiarize themselves with, and for command staff to collect data on the technology in order to secure funding to purchase an ELSAG system. What was originally a 30-day trial turned into a five-month loan. Bean counters needed to see the value of the technology in order to be persuaded the $25,000 piece of equipment was in the budget. And part of that proof came as the night unfolded on October 12, 2006.

     Hedley didn't know there were three girls in the passenger compartment of the truck's cab. What's of greater urgency was what he didn't know about the driver and front passenger.

     After a 30-mile pursuit, which covered an interstate roadway and ended in a gated community, two guns were recovered, one later confirmed as a stolen firearm from a neighboring jurisdiction. The driver was captured after a foot chase through an apartment building - a murder suspect out on bond. The passenger was apprehended immediately after the truck had crashed into a tree - he was a sex offender, convicted of rape, who had just been released on bond from prison.

     The three juvenile females between 15 and 16 years old, held against their will in the quad-cab portion of the rogue truck, survived the incident unharmed.

Other offerings

     Show Low, Arizona, acts as the tourism and shopping hub in the Northeastern corner of Arizona. Its year-round population is approximately 12,400, but due to its commercial center, regional medical facility, and its unique geography as a crossway for three states and U.S. highways, Chief Jeffrey Smythe says the police department serves a population closer to several times that base count.

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