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November 14, 2006
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Chicago police cameras may scan plates for stolen cars, suspects

By Fran Spielman
The Chicago Sun-Times

Surveillance cameras on high-crime Chicago street corners may soon be equipped with new software that makes it easier to catch bad guys who drive or park nearby -- by scanning the license plates of up to 3,600 parked or moving vehicles an hour.

The Chicago Police Department is exploring the idea of installing Big Brother software on 300 "blue light" cameras -- along with the possibility of adding the plate-reading function to video cameras now installed in 30 squad cars to record traffic stops.

Plate-reading software is capable of working with any video source, so long as it records at a speed of three frames per second, according to Jonathon Lewin, commander of the police department's Information Technology Section.

"We'd be able to take real-time video feeds from the pods, scan those license plates that come into the frame of view and look for the same kinds of things that we're looking for when we put these out with the vehicles," Lewin told reporters after the City Council's Police Committee gave the Police Department the go-ahead to access vehicle registration information compiled by the Illinois secretary of state.

"People would observe the video from a police facility or the 911 center. As a [suspect] vehicle is identified by the observers, they could communicate with the street resources to take the appropriate action. If it was a stolen car or if the registered owner was wanted, that would be enough suspicion to stop the car and investigate further."

POLICE TEST READERS IN SQUADS

Last month, squad car cameras were installed in the Pullman and Jefferson Park districts -- and in marked cars patrolling Lake Shore Drive and the Skyway.

Since Jan. 1, the Chicago Police Department has been experimenting with $26,000 plate readers on four marked squad cars similar to the "squad car of the future" on display at the Chicago Auto Show. Ten similarly equipped Ford Crown Victorias are expected to hit the streets within weeks.

Plate readers positioned on either side of the vehicle are capable of scanning the plates of up to 3,600 parked or moving vehicles an hour and instantly matching them against a database of local, federal and state warrants of "both vehicles and people" as well as against investigative alerts for registered owners and vehicles.

The latest innovation in a Police Department on the cutting edge of technology has already produced tangible results.

'A LITTLE DISCOMFORT' WITH PLAN

The plate readers have scanned 2.3 million license plates, resulting in 148 arrests, 15 narcotics seizures and the recovery of 310 vehicles. People were nailed for everything from criminal sexual assault, public indecency and domestic battery to auto theft and armed robbery. In several instances, narcotics and rifles were recovered.

Now, the Police Department wants to build on that success. Ald. Freddrenna Lyle (6th) is all for the idea -- within reason.

"I want the people who are committing crime and causing harm to communities apprehended. I just feel a little discomfort about all of this Big Brother technology. I'm not looking for the total police state where, every time I walk out of the house, somebody knows that I'm leaving my house," Lyle said.

Copyright 2006 Chicago Sun-Times, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

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