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Nowhere to Hide From License Plate Recognition

From recouping parking fines to catching thieves, more agencies are expanding the use of license plate recognition systems and realizing their benefits.

February 13, 2012  |  by - Also by this author

Databases can also be used to find missing persons. One of the newest ways law enforcement agencies are using hotlists and ALPR is for Silver alerts. Similar to AMBER alerts used to notify the public of abducted children, a Silver alert is used to broadcast information about missing adults. It was originally established to help find seniors with Alzheimer's disease, hence the name, but Silver alerts can be used for any adults that might need help finding their way home.

Just before Christmas, a sheriff's office that uses ELSAG North America's ALPR systems was notified that a woman suffering from extreme depression had gone missing, and they were afraid something had happened to her. She had left in her car, so the sheriff's office reached out to all the agencies in the four surrounding counties to utilize their license plate readers to look for her license plate.

"They were able to find her license plate, which then led to finding her," says ELSAG's Nate Maloney. "They brought her to the hospital and had her checked out, and she was able to go home and was able to enjoy Christmas with her family because the LPR led them to her."


As mentioned earlier, ALPR can greatly assist in investigations. These systems don't just process the plates that generate hits, but all of the plates that have been captured by a camera and decoded. It's all a matter of how the information is utilized. "It's become a great investigative tool because the data can be stored in databases and searched against for however long the police agency decides to store that data," says Sturgill.

Identifying the location of suspects in a crime based on where their registered license plates were detected has solved many a case. But there are other uses as well.

One agency uses its ALPR equipment in concert with Shot Spotter, an acoustical device that detects the direction of gunfire. When Shot Spotter detects gunfire and identifies where it is coming from, the ALPR cameras are automatically turned toward that direction so they can identify any vehicles that may be fleeing from that scene. This collaborative system has helped the agency solve a homicide.

Convoy analysis is another inspired use of ALPR technology. If there is a rash of auto thefts, law enforcement can use correlating data to find potential suspects. "If we're going to steal a truck, I have to drive you somewhere, you steal the vehicle, and then we both drive home," explains CitySync's Carson. "Using ALPR data from several locations, chances are the same car following the same guy over a period of time is somehow related to the case."

On its own, license plate recognition systems identify plates, check against hotlists, and store data. How law enforcement agencies want to utilize these abilities is up to them. "It's almost unlimited what you want the ALPR software to look for," says Commander Jason Williams of the Bellwood (Ill.) Police Department. And his agency has only scratched the surface thus far.

Revenue Generation

In addition to solving crimes, license plate recognition systems can bring in money. Officers with the Bellwood Police Department routinely use two mobile ALPR systems from ELSAG to enforce fining for parking tickets, and have been pleased with the results.

One car has two cameras that are angled in such a way that they can scan plates of cars parked on both sides of the street as the patrol vehicle drives by. The other has two additional cameras positioned so they can scan plates on vehicles parked perpendicular to the cruiser in lots. These cars maintain hotlists of license plates registered to people who have reached a certain threshold of unpaid parking fines.

If an alert sounds that a plate is recognized as "boot eligible," the officer stops the car, puts a "boot" on the vehicle's wheel to prevent it from moving, and keeps patrolling. Beyond a certain threshold of parking fines, the officer might also have the vehicle towed, but those offenders are on a different hotlist.

Some states link vehicle registration to tax records, so if someone owes taxes, police can "boot" or tow his or her vehicle. Law enforcement will only remove the boot or return the car after the violator has paid his or her taxes. "In New Haven, Conn., in a 12-month period, they collected almost $13 million in back taxes from people who had outstanding debt," says
ELSAG's Maloney.

Most agencies don't use ALPR to generate revenue, and Bellwood PD is no different. From the outset, the plan has been for the department to start using license plate recognition to crack down on people refusing to pay parking tickets before moving on to other targets. "We want to expand to looking for traffic violators who have suspended driver's licenses and people who are wanted, but I understand you can also use that in stationary systems," says Williams. "We currently have red light violation cameras in town, and putting this software into those cameras would help us."

While most agencies' LPR capabilities are limited by cost concerns, that may not always be the case, even for smaller departments. "It's an evolving technology," says Sturgill. "I think at one point it will probably be as common as radar is in a police unit." 

For More Information:


ELSAG North America

NDI Recognition Systems

PIPS Technology

Vigilant Video

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Comments (5)

Displaying 1 - 5 of 5

concerned citizen @ 9/13/2013 6:18 PM

This is a gross article. Cops really have gotten lazy.

Orwell's Ghost @ 11/20/2014 6:29 PM

Law enforcement is the sworn enemy of a free society. Our founding fathers are rolling in their graves...

Eric Knight @ 1/27/2015 4:02 PM

And what happens when a non-registered sex offender is driving the car, perhaps to pick up her kid at as school? This is the frightening aspect of justifying police encroachment based upon sex offender tracking issues.

Bill Clark @ 2/28/2015 7:27 AM

I have a problem with these. My sister was pulled over because her deadbeat ex had a warrant out on him. He is 6ft 280 pounds and my sister is 5 ft 1. And 100 pounds. The cop gave her a hard time about where her ex was and threatened to have the car towed. All he had to do was look at the driver and see it wasn't the person with the warrant. All she was doing was taking my niece to school. The officer proceeded to walk around her car and then gave her a ticket for a cracked windshield. She wasn't speeding or breaking any laws and because of her deadbeat ex, she gets a ticket and has to replace a windshield that had a 4 inch crack in the bottom passenger side corner that you couldn't see unless you looked for it. She is a single mom with 2 kids trying to get by on a waitress's wage. This just gives the cops another thing to pull people over and then find something to give them a ticket for. When he saw that the driver wasn't the one he was looking for he should of told her to go

TK @ 4/23/2016 11:14 AM

It seems that instead of helping Citizens and preventing crime, Police have turned into Revenue Collectors. So sad.

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