Law enforcement agencies are always on the lookout for new and innovative ways to boost public safety in their communities, and many districts already have LPR technology, used for traffic control, parking and as a deterrent against crime. But there are many other ways to use the data that is collected.
“The value of the system is not so much in reading the license plate but the ability to apply that to data in real time,” says Todd Child, Senior Vice President of Professional Services, Leonardo, a leading license plate recognition company which has successfully used its technology to aid law enforcement for over 20 years. “Then, you can really start to draw patterns out.”
Child gives an example of alerts for stolen cars: “If alarms are occurring more in one part of the city, a more advanced LPR system will allow an investigator or operational unit within a law enforcement agency to view that activity against a map and say: you know, I’m seeing a lot more stolen vehicle recoveries in this area. So those are being stolen in this geography and they’re being recovered in this geography. If we concentrate our forces in between the two, we are likely to find something interesting.”
Child explains that more advanced thieves will sometimes park cars, lay low for a while, and then return. This is where data collection can be a boon for investigators looking at large crime rings or drug gangs. “With the LPR data, we can see where the vehicle travelled, where it’s been stored and where they end up. As an investigator, you don’t necessarily want just that one vehicle back. You want to shut down the entire operation, and that’s where the broader data becomes much more important.”
Pooling data to fight crime
One of the strengths of the Leonardo systems is their ability to pull together data from other systems, says Child. Unfortunately, many cities across the US have recorded an increase in crime since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Violent crime has risen by 12% in US cities, and motor vehicle theft by 48%. However, pooling of collected data to help tackle crime is rare. Vendors don’t necessarily interchange data freely.
“In order to consolidate that data into a broader net, we’ve developed ways to absorb data from disparate customers that are using our equipment, and even from some customers who are not, into a consolidated back end,” explains Child. “We feel that just collecting the LPR data is a base, an absolute minimum. The value comes in applying the algorithms for both real-time interdiction in the field and for intelligence work. By collecting that data more broadly and having a system that has the capacity to apply those algorithms, you suddenly get this national vision through systems like HIDTA (National High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area) where you’re collecting data across thousands of miles.
“If you’re looking for human trafficking activity, gun tracking activity, drugs, gang activity; all that starts to rise out of that big data source. The algorithms can identify patterns or specific individuals that are of interest, which is the real value of a larger, long-term LPR system. The HIDTA system is a national consolidation of data that really allows an investigator to drill-down and watch a vehicle’s movement across multiple states, even across an entire region.” All this activity is carefully audited and tracked, points out Child.
Patterns can then start to appear, such as commonalities between similar crimes in different states. “Automated algorithms then generate what plates were in common across those activities or what sources of information were common across those locations and times,” explains Child. “It can give you a real short list of suspects very, very quickly. But only with the ability to draw out that data, across that range of locations, can national level criminal activity start to emerge.”
Alarms and alerts
‘Hot lists’ can be created on the system to look out for vehicles of interest, whether that’s for a criminal investigation, or because the driver has been reported as missing or in distress. Lists are also distributed directly to the field device: a car that’s equipped with LPR or a LPR mounted on a pole, or a camera that’s feeding data back into a server.
Each one of these end devices is updated with a list that comes from the federal government twice a day and can be updated in real time, including a list of stolen vehicles. In the US, warrants associated with license plates, terrorist watchlist information and people associated with a crime, are also included.
When a license plate gets read by a law enforcement agency, it automatically gets checked against these lists. If a vehicle of interest goes by one of the cameras, it sets off an alarm at the investigator site, or in real time in the field, to drive an interdiction where the officer can stop the vehicle.
A Silver Alert is where an older person is reported missing. They may have become confused or have lost their way. “Within sensor density, the system can identify where the vehicle was last seen and allow investigators to put an alert or a hotlist entry on that vehicle,” explains Child. “An officer who’s driving around town might not look at every license plate every minute, but you go through a parking lot and the alarm goes off and it will say that vehicle is on a Silver Alert, and you can then take a look and see if the person is okay, or lost, or how we might help.”
When it comes to missing children, Amber Alerts are used. “Those are the ones we’re proudest of,” says Child. “When a child is saved from kidnapping – and we’ve had cases where children have been released from trunks of cars within hours or minutes of an alert being put on that vehicle – those are the ones that get us up in the morning to go back to work.”
Leonardo features several types of cameras for different purposes and budgets, such as the ELSAG® Street Sentry, which is low-cost, solar-powered, and fixed to a pole. For more information about this newest plate recognition camera or any of Leonardo’s LPR solutions, download the product sheet below.