Click, you’re it

It’s mid-afternoon on a Saturday as you cruise your patrol car through the parking lot of a strip mall. A small national chain store and several novelty shops offer sales to entice clientele, and the almost full parking lot shows the ads worked. Suddenly an alert sounds. The Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR) system has matched a vehicle it has “seen” with a database. On the screen, you see several images including the license plate of a small silver Honda parked four cars back from the entrance of the chain store. The vehicle is wanted in connection to the kidnapping of a five-year-old girl 20 miles east of your current location. You contact dispatch. “K16, that information is affirmative,” she responds. “The plate and vehicle come back positive for an Amber Alert. Standby for back-up.”

Now replace that plate number with a stolen vehicle, a wanted fugitive, a vehicle with a slew of unpaid parking tickets or one with insurance, tax or registration violations. Whatever you’re looking for an ALPR system can help you find it…fast.


What it is

In the late 1980s, the United Kingdom struggled with IRA terrorism. “The British government was looking for a means to stop some of the truck bombs being brought over from Ireland to blow up in London,” Bob Pinzler, vice president of marketing and sales at PlateScan states. “They asked the defense contractors to come up with a way of reading plates and recording them. It developed into a more general police tool.” ALPR systems are made up of several components, including the camera which can be fixed, for example on a bridge or mobile, attached to a vehicle. A system with as many as four cameras in a single unit can be utilized. The camera scans an area snapping several pictures of all the license plates, as well as images of the vehicle. It can scan an average of 7,000 to 8,000 plates during a shift. Some systems allow for GPS coordinates as well. The picture is then translated into a digital set of letters and numbers by either an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) system or a neural network. This digital translation is compared to a “hot-list”. A final component is the back office software suite, which is where the comparison list and the list of digital images is stored.

The “hot-list” is a set of data compiled from a variety of sources determined by the agency. Most utilize NCIC, their state database and information entered manually. “We get a daily text file from the Nebraska State Patrol,” explains Lincoln (Nebraska) Police Department Chief Tom Casady. The agency currently has two mobile PIPS ALPR systems. “To this we add our own parking scofflaw list and our own local wanted plates. [Everything] is automated and maintained by our information technology staff.”  

Manual information is entered as needed. The Post Falls (Idaho) Police Department’s four fixed and three mobile PIPS ALPR systems allow emergency communication operators to maintain and update the list. Along with manual input, their list is updated automatically twice daily from the state. The South Portland (Maine) Police Department also allows officers to add plates on the fly. As per their SOP, any entry made by an officer will be purged at the end of their shift.



Agencies utilize ALPR technology in a variety of ways with two main purposes: immediate interdiction and investigation. Immediate interdiction includes stolen vehicles and wanted persons. It can also be used to enforce mandatory insurance, current registration or unpaid parking tickets. Officers can immediately see a vehicle, or a person owning a particular vehicle, is wanted. After the officer verifies the information through the appropriate sources, a stop can be made. This also applies to an Amber Alert scenario or one where a BOLO has been issued. Officers do not have the capability to see and run every vehicle in their vicinity. But ALPR technology comes close to being able to do just that – making patrol efforts more efficient and effective. This technology is described as a force multiplier. “In a lot of those cases, the vehicle probably would not have come to the officer’s attention without the ALPR,” states Lieutenant Frank Clark, South Portland PD’s public information officer. “It sets the officer off to look at it.”

A second use is investigation. The information collected by the ALPR system, especially those with GPS capability, can be used for a variety of investigative purposes. Narcotics agents can see who is coming and going around known drug houses. Alibis can be confirmed or dispelled. Probation officers have evidence of whether their probationers have been in restricted areas. “Detectives look at mass amounts of data,” explains Nate Malone, vice president of marketing and communication at Elsag North America. “They can go back and look at a data set.” ALPR technology can help focus an investigation. “It has much more powerful uses in terms of using the data from all plate reads to solve crime, find patterns of movement and gives detectives or crime analysts a place to start an investigation,” says Pinzler.

Many agencies are collaborating to increase the effectiveness of their ALPR systems. Lincoln (Nebraska) Police Department collaborates with the State Patrol and Omaha Police Department. Post Falls shares with Kootenai County Sheriff Department and Coeur d’Alene Police Department. Although South Portland Police Department is the only agency in the state with ALPR, they have a mutual aid agreement written into their SOP. “If another agency needed us, we would allow the ALPR car to respond and assist,” says Clark.  



Different types of funding exist for ALPR, says Pinzler. “Some are grants. Some are internal, such as from search and seizure funds or general funds. Some are from citizenry who want to see their police force with the equipment. It’s all over the lot.” Agencies have been successful in gaining general funding by explaining the revenue generating nature of the technology. For example, in Connecticut, vehicles are attached to a personal property tax. Due to the amount of non-compliant citizens, the state advised the public these plates would be put on an unpaid tax list attached to the ALPR. “They collected three million dollars in unpaid taxes by saying we’re going to put out on the list,” explains Malone. Special funding can also be gained by entering agreements with various organizations, such as local Home Owners Associations (HOA) or through support from insurance organizations.  

A popular way of funding is federal and state grants. Utica (Michigan) Police Department outfitted several of their cars with ALPR systems utilizing American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money. Utica shared their ALPR technology with a neighboring county to increase the reach of their system and database. In response, the state granted them additional money. Additional federal grants used by agencies to purchase ALPR include Edward Byrne (JAG), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) grants, as well as, Homeland Security funding. South Portland acquired their ALPR system through a JAG grant in 2009. Now the department is looking to purchase one more.

At the state level, many New York jurisdictions gained the ability to acquire, maintain and support their ALPR technology with funding by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. As with most grants, establishing collaborations with other agencies increases diversity of funding. “It’s an extremely powerful tool and the capability has not been fully capped,” Pinzler states, “particularly in how agencies can work together to solve crimes. It was made [to be] sharable.”

Many of the companies providing ALPR technology, including PIPS, Elsag and PlateScan assist agencies in locating and applying for appropriate grants. “Our operations staff has knowledge in grant writing and will assist agencies,” explains Pinzler. As more agencies acquire the technology, especially those utilizing unique funding, word will spread on how it can be done. Think big and way outside the box. Also, consider what other agency purchases could be made with grants so that money can be used to purchase those items that are not eligible.


Privacy concerns

Since its inception in the United States, some oppose to the use of ALPR technology citing violations of privacy. Privacy advocates do not seem to have a problem with the increase in recovered stolen vehicles, reduction of drug distributors, enhanced safety of schools as sex offenders are kept from restricted zones, recovery of endangered children and increase in revenue owned to the state from scofflaws. The argument over unreasonable search has essentially been laid to rest due to the agreement license plates are in the public domain. “When you register a vehicle, you are giving permission for that vehicle to be tracked,” explains Malone. Essentially, the ALPR technology does what officers currently can do, only in a larger volume.

“Every now and then, we think there’s going to be some roadblock by a member of the public or organization but nothing comes from it,” says Bryan Sturgill, sales application special with PIPS Technology. “It’s a machine that captures a license plate and reads the license plate. It does not capture any personal information. If there is a match, it doesn’t retain any information on an individual. It’s not looking up their date of birth or past criminal history.” Most of the debate centers on the use and storage of the data collected by the ALPR. Recently, advocates and users of ALPR held their breath as the issue went before the 124th Maine State Legislature.


LD 1561

LD 1561, when presented to the legislature with backing from the Maine Civil Liberties Union (MCLU), prohibited the use of ALPR within the state for any reason by any agency. Obviously this was problematic to South Portland PD, as well as law enforcement agencies throughout the country. After arguments on both sides were heard, the legislation passed but allowed for excepted uses, including “any state, county or municipal law enforcement agency when providing public safety, conducting criminal investigations and ensuring compliance with local, state and federal laws”. Maine legislature saw the value in allowing law enforcement to continue using ALPR technology. In response to this, South Portland designed their comprehensive SOP.   

“We used IACP and their work,” Clark explains. “We talked to a lot of other states and agencies that have policies on it and met with the MCLU to discuss the privacy issues before we implemented it. Once it was being implemented, we shared our policy with the public and the legislative committee, and educated people on what it does and more important, what it does not do.” Clark, along with Chief Edward Googins, currently sits on a work group arising from LD 1561. “The more word we got out the more comfortable people were,” Clark says. “Our message was this essentially allows us to do something we have always been able to do but now we can do it differently.” When officers are trained to use the technology, they are also trained on privacy requirements and legal use of the equipment and data. “The piece of it that is most problematic is the retention period,” states Clark. “It only allows retention for 21 days. This is problematic because, as we’ve seen, historical data has been accessed to solve serial type crimes and offenses.”

ALPR technology continues to evolve. Cameras are now able to translate painted-on images and decipher the myriad of plates utilized across the country regardless of color or graphics. Future uses of ALPR will continue to grow as law enforcement dream of new ways to use the technology. “It’s all driven by what value to a company or a police force or parking enforcement, a license plate might be worth,” says Pinzler. “We read plates and we match them up to databases and put them into searching criteria, so it’s really up to the imagination of the ultimate user how this might be used.” As privacy concerns are dispelled and agencies work with citizens to explain and collaborate on how the technology is used, ALPR technology will continue to grow and assist law enforcement both in patrol and investigations. Sturgill sums it up, “This technology compliments law enforcement efforts.”