Wednesday December 10 12:05 pm
High-tech eyes on the streets of Brockton
The Enterprise of Brockton, Mass. www.enterprisenews.com By Maureen Boyle ENTERPRISE STAFF WRITER Posted Dec 10, 2008 @ 02 34 AM BROCKTON — Officer Kevin Jones cruised down Main Street, occasionally looking down at the computer screen mounted in his police car. Two cameras atop the cruiser were scanning the license plates of vehicles on the street, checking for stolen and unregistered cars, as well as vehicle owners wanted by police. Plate after legal license plate flashed on the screen. Bloop. Bloop. Bloop. Then, the alarm sounded. In less than five minutes, the newest high-tech weapon in the Brockton crime-fighting arsenal had identified an unregistered car. It really is amazing, Jones said. The new camera and software system, installed last week in one city cruiser, scans and reads license plates as an officer drives down a street. Two cameras are mounted atop the cruiser, one reading vehicles on the right, the other those on the left. The license plate recognition system is called the LPR Mobile Plate Hunter 900 and is made by ELSAG North America. It compares the plates with information in a database of stolen, unregistered vehicles; those involved in Amber Alerts; and vehicles registered to people who may be wanted by law enforcement authorities. If there is a match, an alarm sounds. The computer screen also displays an image of the vehicle, the license plate and temporarily stores the plate numbers on the computer. That means police can review the stored license plate information for clues to crimes in the city. For example, if a suspect fleeing a crime drives by, investigators can later review the license plate information to try to identify him or her. The system can read up to 500 license plates a minute. You couldnt write down the plates fast enough, said Chris Johnson, a representative from ELSAG. Officer Adam Rees said the system will be a plus to police patrolling problem areas. If someone is wanted on a warrant and they have a car, that car can be entered into the system, Rees said. It is going to make a bigger impact in the city than people may realize. License plate recognition systems are used by a number of police departments throughout the country and world. The technology was used in Britain in the 1990s to deter attacks. New York plans to scan plates of cars entering Manhattan, and Arizona has been using the system since 2006. The Syracuse, N.Y., school district said in July it would be using the Mobile Plate Hunter-900 to identify the license plates of cars illegally passing stopped school buses. Brockton, one of a handful of Massachusetts departments installing the system, bought the $20,000 unit with a grant. Only one cruiser — the newest in the fleet — is equipped with the system. Privacy advocates said the system isnt a problem as long as it is used correctly. We think that the technology itself isnt objectionable, said Christopher Ott, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union in Boston. It isnt doing anything differently than what a police officer could do. What we are concerned about is the amount of information that is collected and what happens to all of the information. Tom Nardone, a privacy advocate and president of PriveCo.com in Michigan, also said he doesnt see a problem with the system. As a privacy advocate, it is not a huge concern to me, he said. I dont think it is too much of a privacy violation. This is just looking at information (police) called in before. Now they are just able to scan it more rapidly.