Police to Install Cameras to Monitor License Plates
The cameras will shoot images of license plates, scan the numbers, and check for outstanding warrants on the vehicle owners.
The Maplewood Police Department will soon outfit one of its patrol cars with four tiny cameras that will allow the officer to constantly scan license plates until he or she finds suspected criminals.
The cameras are part of an automatic license plate recognition system, a new sophisticated way for police officers to monitor license plates in Maplewood. The high-definition cameras will be mounted on the police car's light bar, and are connected to a computer processor in the trunk. As the cameras snap images of license plates on passing and parked vehicles, the system compares the plate numbers to entries in a wide database of suspected criminals, said Tim O'Leary, the vice president of PIPS Technology, the company that creates the cameras for police departments in Missouri.
The department will use the system to catch high-profile suspects, not to issue traffic tickets, Maplewood Police Chief Steve Kruse said. He said he hopes to catch suspects with outstanding warrants, and those involved with stolen vehicles and burglaries.
"You wouldn't check any license plates unless you had cause in an investigation," he said. "I can run every license plate in town and find out who the car is registered to, but nobody does that. There's no reason to."
Officers aren't required to enter any license plates themselves, because the system works independently. The cameras can scan nearly 360 degrees around the car. Once it finds a flagged license plate, the system immediately alerts the officer. O'Leary said the system can scan up to 100,000 plates per eight-hour shift in a congested area, but said the amount would be lower in a town the size of Maplewood.
The cameras use optical character recognition technology so the photos will dismiss everything but license plates, O'Leary said, avoiding the possibility of scanning photos of cats in the streets, for example.
Kruse spent some time with the Richmond Heights Police Department, which currently uses the system, to determine its effectiveness.
The department in Richmond Heights wouldn't comment on any specific successes or failures of the system, but Richmond Heights Detective Sgt. Doug Schaeffler recommended reading a May article in the Suburban Journals where he said nearly 46,000 license plates were scanned during March.
"It's a very impressive investigative tool," Kruse said. "It's a far cry from when I started in police work back in 1974, when all there was in a car was a radio and a shotgun, and that's it."
The city bought only one system for one car because, with a price tag of $24,000, it isn't cheap.
At its Sept. 14 meeting, the Maplewood City Council approved the department's purchase of the system. Thid Ward Councilman Shawn Faulkingham expressed concern about how invasive cameras can be. He said the cameras created a "big brother" feeling.
"I'm not opposed to it; I think the technology is good, but when does it all stop?" he said. "That's the biggest concern."
City Manager Marty Corcoran urged the council to approve the system, which he said was less invasive than it sounded.
"You're taking a bad person off the street," he said.
He told the council that the system didn't store any of the information it gathered, but the system actually keeps a record of what, and where, it scans. Kruse said that's part of the system's strength.
If a crime was reported in an area where an officer had recently patrolled, then the police department could examine the system's history for potential leads. Kruse said the technology is essential for the police force to keep doing its job effectively.
He cited an example from March where the cameras led to the arrest of two escaped inmates from the Alabama Department of Corrections. The inmates stole a used car from Central Auto Sales in Maplewood, and weren't picked up until an officer in a Chicago suburb found the car in a motel parking lot by using the license plate cameras.
Kruse said the police department won't change how it patrols or operates each day.
"If you have a high-crime area where you're having some problems, you'll go through there like you would anyway," he said.
The Brentwood Police Department is currently looking to buy the system through a grant, Brentwood Assistant Police Chief Dan Fitzgerald said.