Middle Georgia police agencies experimenting with license plate reader systems

bpurser@macon.comMay 13, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- Middle Georgia law enforcement agencies are experimenting with license plate recognition systems that automatically read plates for “hits” such as stolen vehicle, suspended insurance and expired tag.

Perry police are trying out a system on loan. Agencies in Houston, Dooly, Bibb, Macon and Byron are already using the technology.

The system automatically photographs and scans thousands of tags daily as vehicles come into view of cameras mounted on police vehicles. The device records a photograph of the tag, the vehicle, the time and date and a GPS location.

Each tag is checked against agency-selected databases such as the Georgia Crime Information Center Database or manually-entered license plate numbers. An alert is issued if there’s a “hit.”

Middle Georgia law enforcement agency representatives say the license plate reader systems are a highly effective crime-fighting tool. But critics such as the American Civil Liberties Union warn of potential tracking and retroactive surveillance -- including of people who are not suspected of a crime.

Bibb County sheriff’s Lt. Sean DeFoe, the agency’s public information officer, noted that the use of the technology is no different than the use of surveillance cameras to help identify the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing.

“What some people may have felt was Big Brother watching helped law enforcement find and apprehend the suspects,” DeFoe said. One of the suspects died after a shootout with police.

Bibb County has been operating its sole automated license plate reader system on a single patrol vehicle since 2009, DeFoe said. It was purchased by the previous sheriff to serve as a “force multiplier” by literally adding extra eyes on the street, DeFoe said.

The very first year it was used, it helped authorities nab a suspect in an armed robbery of the X-Mart adult store on Emery Highway, said DeFoe. He described how the system worked:

A traffic officer responding to the robbery unknowingly passed the suspect’s vehicle. The license plate reader system captured the tag information. The officer compiled a list of vehicles in the vicinity of the business at the time of the robbery. He then programmed the system to “read” the vehicle tags.

Later, while the officer was on patrol, the system gave an alert on one of vehicles. The officer pulled over the driver, who, during the continued investigation, confessed to the crime, DeFoe said.

The system also has resulted in the arrests of violent felons, recovery of stolen vehicles and the location of missing persons, he said.

The system is installed on two Macon police vehicles, with three more expected to be added this month, said Jami Gaudet, the agency’s public information officer.

Macon police Lt. Wilton Collins said one of the systems is used only for traffic enforcement, while the other is assigned to the narcotics division.

“It’s a great piece of gear,” Collins said.

The officer is able to go about his daily duties while the system is constantly scanning for offenders, he said.

Houston County Sheriff Cullen Talton said he heard about the success of Dooly County’s system and asked for a demonstration. Impressed, he got one for his department last year.

“We saw how effective they were in picking up violators,” Talton said. “I think the first week it paid for itself.”

However, Talton stressed that generating revenues was not the impetus behind the purchase. Lt. Ronnie Harlowe, who heads up the sheriff’s patrol division, said the system is used only for traffic enforcement.

Perry Police Chief Steve Lynn said his agency will use the system mostly for traffic enforcement. But he also expects to use it for investigative purposes.

In an area of high-crime or high-drug activity, the technology can be used to build a database of vehicles in the area, he said.

“Often, the key to solving any crime is developing a starting point,” Lynn noted in a memo to council members about the systems. “If you know what vehicles were in a certain area at a certain time, that alone could provide the crucial clue for successful resolution of the case.”

The agency is trying out three different systems and plans to purchase one as proposed in the next fiscal year budget now under review, Lynn said.

Capt. Bill Phelps, who heads the department’s patrol division, said he believes the technology has great potential.

For example, a be-on-the-lookout bulletin is issued for the suspect’s vehicle in a kidnapping, Phelps said. Perry police plug that tag number into the system, and there’s a hit. Police are dispatched to that last known location, find the kidnapper and rescue the victim, he said.

Perry Cpl. Justin West, who’s testing the systems, said the alerts mostly have been for traffic-related violations such as suspended licenses. If the system were used to track a motorist, West said he expects that person would already be under police scrutiny.

Moreover, Lynn noted that the purpose of the system is not for spying on the general public but for apprehending criminals.

“It’s just another addition to our toolbox,” Lynn said.

To contact writer Becky Purser call 256-9559.

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