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Police Install Plate-Reader Cameras on Patrol Cars

Technology allows plate numbers and letters to be run through a database to help find lawbreakers and stolen cars.

The technology exists, so why not put it to good use? That's the mindset by the as it starts to use its new automated license plate reader system on three of its patrol vehicles.

The units cost $10,000 per car, but all the money was secured through grants and from the County of Marin, according to Captain Dave Jefferies.

Police departments in Mill Valley and Tiburon have used the ALPR system for a few years as part of a larger effort by the Marin County Sheriff’s Office to implement the devices. Tiburon received widespread media attention when it installed an ALPR device on a stationary pole at the town limits so it could check every plate on two main thoroughfares.

According to a Novato police press release, cameras mounted on a patrol car constantly scan for license plates as they come within view of the camera lens. One a plate is found, the software uses character recognition to translate the letters and numbers on a plate then compares them to several thousand wanted license plates. An alert sounds if the string matches one in the list.

The license plates on the alert lists are typically those reported as stolen or associated with people with outstanding arrest warrants.

The ALPR system has been used for about a week in Novato. Police said the system would dramatically increase the efficiency of a single officer looking for stolen vehicles and crime suspects.

"The units are functional and people have been trained, but we're still working out the details," Lt. Keith Heiden said. "There haven't been any major arrests from it. In the course of time, as everyone gets more familiar with it, hopefully it'll be taking off and we'll start to get results from them."

There are two cameras and four lenses per unit, Heiden said. He said the technology is similar to surveillance video mounted on buildings or cameras used at toll plazas to pinpoint drivers who try to speed through without paying.

The city of Novato is looking into purchasing a fourth ALPR unit, which would give police units on one-fifth of its 20 marked police cars.


Mark Schoenbaum August 06, 2012 at 03:28 PM
While I have no objection to the cameras the implication that they did not cost residents anything is disingenuine since the county grants are paid out of tax monies.
Rico August 06, 2012 at 04:19 PM
The City of Mill Valley has had 2 patrol cars fitted with these cameras for about 2 years. The police on the swing and graveyard shifts patrol every street, lane, alley and some business and condo-apartment parking lots every night. That means that the police know who is parked on the streets and can't see cars parked in garages or covered in carports. I do wonder how many stolen cars (if any) have been recovered with this night surveillance camera program. I have not read even one report of any stolen cars found by this program in 2 years. To me , it seems like a waste of money, but it helps make sure that the police are not screwing off at night. Another way to track the citizens who have to park on the street at night.
Dave Robertson August 06, 2012 at 07:41 PM
If all these devices do is read the license plates, then they are a waste of money and may even cause problems by reading some plates incorrectly. I assume the police have had the capability of checking license plates against a database for 20 years or more. If these units also use GPS, log locations and plates automatically, and create their own database - it can be seen a major invasion of privacy. Again, please correct me if I am wrong, but Novato (not yet, anyway) is a relatively low crime area. Stolen cars and wandering criminals are not on every street corner. It seems as if the money would be better spent making sure we can afford proper police payrolls, etc.
Jerome J Ghigliotti Jr August 06, 2012 at 11:02 PM
Well, it depends upon your source. People who have lived here for a while believe that crime is rising. Crime reporting under the former police chief was configured to indictae that crime was not rising. These license plate readers are a great law enforcement tool. I approve of the program. Yes, these are tax dollars, but being spent here is a good thing. Police have had to enter license plate numbers, individually, and could only do so upon suspicious cars. Now, all cars, even the seemingly unsuspicious, which are involved in criminal activities, can be checked by computer against the law enforcement data base in less thaan a minute each.

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