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Police partner with license plate readers

Thursday, March 4, 2010 - 3:48pm

A growing number of police departments are turning to mobile camera systems to fight motor vehicle theft and identify unregistered cars.
The cameras read license plates of parked and moving cars — hundreds per minute — and check them against vehicle databases, said Lance Clem, a spokesman for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, which purchased several systems for its police vehicles last fall.

Departments in Denver and Colorado Springs; South Portland, Maine; Gwinnett, Douglas and Cherokee counties in Georgia; and Clinton, Conn., are planning to deploy or have already added License Plate Recognition (LPR) systems this year, officials from those agencies said.

Also, about 40 law enforcement agencies in the Washington, D.C., metro area are deploying LPRs this year, according to Nate Maloney, a spokesman for their supplier, ELSAG of Brewster, N.Y. The district has had them since 2005, he said.

Newark, Albany County, N.Y., and Ann Arbor, Mich., added them in 2009 using federal stimulus funds, according to recovery.gov.

Last October, Lt. Scott Burke of the Portsmouth, Va., Police Department said he took one of their new systems out for a test, and in 33 minutes got a "hit" on a sedan reported stolen in a carjacking.

"We called in the troops, made an arrest, and the vehicle was returned to the owner," Burke said. "That was way cool."

Mark Windover, CEO of ELSAG, one of several companies selling the camera systems, said they can also help in AMBER Alert child searches.

Elsewhere:

• Norwalk, Conn. Police Lt. David Wrinn said the department deployed three LPRs in September and recovered seven stolen cars, found six stolen plates being used illegally and tracked down four missing or suicidal people by November.

• Louisville. Metro Police have used the technology since early 2007, said Lt. James Mueller, especially during big events such as the Kentucky Derby, when large crowds increase the potential for stolen vehicles.

AAA national spokesman Troy Green said the auto club supports the readers being used to recover stolen cars, but he said the organization is concerned about their use "solely as a revenue generator" or to create records of vehicle movements.

Maine state Sen. Dennis Damon, a Democrat, said he's worried about the potential for abuse. He has sponsored a bill requiring any Maine department using the camera systems to purge the stored images of scanned plates after 21 days. The bill was approved by a transportation committee last month, he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union also is concerned about the systems being used to compile vehicle movement records, legislative counsel Christopher Calabrese said.