License Plate Recognition: What is it and how can it benefit law enforcement agencies?

By Genetec, February 7, 2013

Advancements in license plate recognition (LPR) technology have enabled law enforcement agencies worldwide to apprehend more wanted suspects and recover more stolen vehicles, while improving the safety of those on duty. Choosing the right LPR system, though, is vital to ensure a reliable solution to detect suspected vehicles and potential threats.

Before delving into the specifics of LPR applications for law enforcement agencies, let us first explore the basics of license plate recognition technology. In short, LPR can be summarized as a specialized plate-reading camera and software solution that work in tandem to automatically identify vehicle license plates in a variety of mobile and fixed installations. The LPR camera is one of the most vital elements of this unique license-plate capturing system. It is responsible for identifying license plates in its field-of-view, capturing a context image of the vehicle and license plate, and processing the image to extract accurate license plate characters. Only the most advanced and specialized LPR devices are able to do this in a variety of conditions and across all different types of plates.

In a mobile environment, where the LPR camera is affixed to the vehicle, there is often an in-vehicle software component which operators can use to review collected plates or handle alarms, coupled with a back-office component for more routine administration and investigation. The LPR software then takes over by matching incoming plate reads against a list of vehicles of interest, or 'hotlist'. If there is a match in the system, the operator will be immediately alerted so they can take appropriate action.

Achieving a successful deployment is all about choosing the right LPR system, including camera and software. It might be a surprise for some to know that specialized LPR technology has been around for over 15 years. And much like other technology, years of research and development have afforded major advancements, to the point where today plate-reading accuracy rates from LPR cameras are claimed to reach up to 99 percent. Unlike standard video or non-LPR cameras that are limited in providing good license plate images, LPR devices are engineered specifically for license plate reading where developers have considered all technical and environmental conditions. For instance, typical video cameras can be plagued by motion blur from the speed of the moving vehicles and can suffer from poor image contrast due to varying ambient light conditions or headlight glare. Instead, advanced LPR cameras like Genetec’s series of AutoVu Sharp LPR cameras, use multiple levels of integrated illumination to capture crisp images of different plate types and colors of plates. These sophisticated LPR devices also capture video and read plates at extremely high speeds and obscure angles and built to work with precision and accuracy in even some of the harshest weather conditions.

Maximizing the investment of an LPR system also means choosing a system with effective data-mining and reporting tools. This will provide law enforcement agencies with the ability to easily filter plate reads using precise vehicle information or even by defining geographic segment on map. The reality is the alternative of searching through thousands of plate reads will become too cumbersome, and eventually deem your LPR system impractical.

For law enforcement agencies license plate recognition can be a powerful addition to their security and parking and offer added eyes on the road to help intercept wanted felons and persons of interest, as the City of Jackson MS' Police Department found out:

"Initially, we were looking for a way to help us to locate people with multiple unpaid moving violations, and to increase our odds of catching them," explains Eric Wall, Deputy Chief of Patrol Operations, at the Jackson PD. “Using the NCIC and warrant hotlist, the AutoVu LPR system was so successful in helping us recover all of these outstanding fines, that the system pays for itself!"

Once they started using the LPR system, Jackson City PD discovered that a number of the people they had identified for unpaid moving violations were also wanted for other crimes, which led to a number of arrests and convictions. 

"With the AutoVu LPR we were able to identify a number of wanted individuals and arrest them.  Being able to take felony offenders off the streets of Jackson to keep our citizens safe is always a significant accomplishment," adds Deputy Chief Wall. 

What's more, at the time, Jackson was also plagued with auto theft, but the LPR system helped us recover a significant number of stolen vehicles and stolen tags, which we would probably have never found otherwise. Frequently the tag from a stolen vehicle will be removed and replaced with a tag stolen from a different vehicle. The Jackson Police Department issued a press release asking citizens to be sure to report stolen license tags.  Through identifying stolen tags, the Department has increased the number of recovered vehicles. 

More recently, during the holidays' "Operation Safe Shop", the Jackson PD was able to use their LPR equipped vehicles to scan cars coming into major retail centers and apprehend wanted felons before they could get into the stores. "We are confident that we were able to reduce the amount of in-store theft, reduce the number of burglarized cars in the parking lots, and keep holiday shoppers safer that way," explains Deputy Chief Wall.

A few months ago, the Jackson PD was also able to apprehend wanted narcotics dealers who had been changing tags on their cars.  The LPR system was able to flag the car on a routine patrol, which led to an arrest.

"The system has worked so well for us that we now regularly get calls from other agencies to ask us if we have seen a wanted car in the area. In fact we heard in the last few days that other departments and agencies are in the process of evaluating the system for their own needs."

Genetec is a provider of world class IP Security Solutions that has a unified security platform  encompassing  license plate recognition, video surveillance and  access control.

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