Monday, July 19, 2010

License plate readers snag violators

Kansas City Police have a new tool under their belts - automatic license plate readers. Here's a story from our Informant newsletter that explains them, and above is a picture of what the cameras look like mounted to a patrol car:

In about 45 seconds, the MPH 900 can do what it would take an officer and dispatcher more than an hour to accomplish: run a parking lot full of license plates.

Kansas City Police now have seven cars outfitted with the Mobile Plate Hunter license plate reader system, and they hit the road near the end of June. The system takes infrared pictures of license plates and compares them to a hot list database stocked with information about warrants and stolen vehicles. It also archives each vehicle’s plate and maps it, so over time, investigators can follow a car’s movements.

“This is just a tool,” said Sergeant Michael Hicks of the Research and Development Division. “It alerts the officer of a warrant or something wanted on the plate and prompts the officer to call a dispatcher to compare it to the live database.”

The plate reader database is updated just once daily. It includes a prioritized list from criminal justice databases ALERT, MULES and NCIC of things like felony warrants, stolen vehicles and stolen plates. But because those things change by the minute, Sergeant Hicks said patrol officers must work with a dispatcher the old-fashioned way to compare a license plate to the live database that is updated in real time before being able to stop a potential suspect. In fact, Hicks said the cameras were purchased – at the cost of about $24,000 each – in accordance with research the department is doing to develop a real-time crime center.

The cameras are mounted to the back of regularly marked patrol cars. One is deployed in each of the six patrol divisions and one in the Special Operations Division. Sergeant Hicks said they can take pictures at a distance of about 25 to 30 feet and at highway speeds. One system can run 7,000 license plates a day before the data needs to be moved wirelessly to one of KCPD’s servers. Once it’s there, Sergeant Hicks said the real value of the plate readers becomes evident.

“The main benefit is in investigations,” he said. “All the data can be queried later on from the back end in an investigation.”

Sergeant Hicks said he hopes officers run the cameras 24/7.

“The best way to deploy (the plate readers) is to keep them rolling all the time and never stop them so they’re always gathering data,” Sergeant Hicks said.

Work is underway to link the data that will be collected by KCPD’s plate readers with other agencies across the state and around the nation. In the Kansas City area, the Lenexa and North Kansas City police departments already have the plate readers in place, as does the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department.

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