License plate spy spots stolen cars, motorists with warrants By [replacer_a]
January, 26, 2009
The notion of a camera mounted on a police car taking images of every license plate in a search for scofflaws sounds like science fiction.
But it's a technology showing up in police departments across the country, and the Port Arthur Police Department could be the first law enforcement agency in the Golden Triangle to use it in its regular crime-fighting efforts.
Tuesday the Port Arthur City Council is expected to vote on whether to buy two license plate reading cameras from Brewster, New York-based ELSAG North America Law Enforcement Systems.
"That thing does what a human cannot do," said Officer Chuck Cobb, who had the camera attached to his vehicle during a trial run in December.
Within the first week, he recovered three stolen cars - from Port Arthur, Port Neches and Louisiana - and a dump truck that had been stolen in Houston three weeks earlier.
He tracked the dump truck while reading plates off Texas 73. One of the stolen cars was parked in an apartment complex.
Cobb learned about the camera several years ago while attending a conference. He also attended a December demonstration of the equipment at the Beaumont Police Department.
Back at his own department, he spread the word about the camera's capabilities.
"Once I got it and started using it they were very impressed with it," Cobb said.
He has compiled his own statistics on the cameras, which can be programmed to search for specific violations.
In Port Arthur, the cameras were programmed to identify vehicles connected to outstanding municipal court warrants.
During that 16-hour warrant sweep, police stopped 124 vehicles, arrested 63 people and served $72,000 in city warrants, Cobb said.
The New York-based company's Web site describes how the cameras can be used on school buses to identify people who drive around them when they are stopped and in school zones to issue an alert if a registered sex offender comes in the area.
It will alert if the license is stolen or is connected to an Amber Alert, missing person or abducted child, as well as other outstanding municipal court violations.
Sgt. Rickey Antoine of the department's traffic division sees all kinds of potential.
"If you receive a ticket in a particular automobile and you don't take care of the ticket, it turns into a warrant and it will alert us on that vehicle," Antoine said.
"If people know they are wanted, they will stop trying to drive or they will take care of their business with municipal court like they should have done earlier."
In New Orleans, the city has two vehicles equipped with the license plate reading cameras. There the cameras are programmed to identify vehicles with a certain number of outstanding parking tickets after which a boot is slapped on. Motorists have the option to pay the ticket.
From April to November, 2,300 boots were applied to offending vehicles, and 2,200 owners paid the fines adding up to more than $1.1 million, according to a Jan. 20 New Orleans Times-Picayune article available on its Web site.
The cameras can identify about 15 vehicles a day that require a boot. Before the cameras were employed, officers using hand-held units could identify two such vehicles daily, according to the Times-Picayune article.
In Salem, Mass., the cameras are seen as a way to compensate for a budget-related 20 percent reduction in the police force, according to a Jan. 24 Salem News article on its Web site.