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New Uses for ALPR Systems

Imaginative agencies are paying for their license plate readers and databases by finding new applications for the technology.

October 14, 2010  |  by Jim Donahue

Following the 9/11 attacks, I worked a detail supporting U.S. Customs at the international border between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. At each primary inspection lane there was a large rectangular mirror that allowed us to view the rear license plate of each vehicle. After we read each tag, the agent would key in the plate's number and state into the Custom Service's computer system and get the history on that tag.

In 2002, we saw the installation of cameras on newly erected concrete posts. This was Customs' first run at an Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) system. It fed into the Customs database system automatically, and the accuracy rate was solid, about 95 percent.

About five years later, someone got the notion to mount multiple cameras on a moving patrol car and include an on-board computer processor. Thus the modern-day ALPR was born.

New Applications

ALPR-equipped patrol cars were first used to hunt down stolen cars. But now many agencies are finding a wide variety of applications for this technology.

For example, detective bureaus are using ALPR systems to find wanted felons. Narcotics guys have also found this technology to be useful for tracking the "who and when" of activity around known drug houses.

Some agencies are even assigning volunteer units to perform regular grid-based sweeps of their towns with ALPRs and then they just sit on the information. At least they sit on it until a detective needs to blow some jerk's alibi.

Neighborhood Watch

Another possible application for an ALPR system involves neighborhood security. Here's the scenario: Your community has an upscale, gated neighborhood with no attendant or guard. Residents use pass cards and codes to open the gates.

Your agency could make a pact with that neighborhood's homeowner's association (HOA). You will install a fixed-mount ALPR camera at their gate. It will be connected to the processor back at dispatch and will use a "hot-list" that you maintain.

Based on an agreement made up front, your agency contracts with the HOA to:

  • Automatically dispatch a unit if the vehicle of a "serious offender" enters.
  • Record date, time, and vehicle information of each entrant. Maybe even snap a picture of the driver.
  • Within the confines of the law, provide reports to the HOA board of directors.
  • Such a setup would cost about $11,000 per camera and about $7,000 for the processor.

Making Money

In this scenario, the neighborhood obviously benefits from proactive police response and crime prevention. But why would any law enforcement agency be willing to provide such a service?

One benefit that an agency will gain in this scenario is intelligence. The information gained through operation of such an ALPR system could be an invaluable asset for you when trying to ferret out a B&E crew that's working an area.

Another benefit is money. If local politics permit you to do so, you can charge for the service. Obviously, you're not doing this to make a profit. Your goal is to cover some of the costs of your ALPR system.

You only need one ALPR database for your entire agency. So if you are being paid to maintain it for your ALPR subscribers, you can put it in your patrol cars with no added costs. Your patrol bureau essentially gets its ALPR database for free. That is a huge benefit for your agency.

Using ALPR, your patrol guys can write more tickets. And they can also make more warrant arrests. It is also reasonable to expect that your agency's percentage of successful case closures will rise.

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