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September 21, 2007
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Plate readers give Tenn. police extra eyes

By Ryan Harris
The Chattanooga Times Free Press

RINGGOLD, Tenn. A Ringgold woman stopped inconspicuously at a bank drive-through Thursday would not normally have caught the attention of the patrolling Fort Oglethorpe officer.

But on this day, the Fort Oglethorpe Police Department had extra eyes working for it.

A car-mounted license plate recognition system photographed the women's vehicle, and detected that she was suspected of having no insurance.

Lt. Gary McConathy stopped the woman, verified the infraction and wrote her a citation.

"If I had been behind her vehicle, I (normally) wouldn't have thought twice to run her tag," Lt. McConathy said afterward.

"The possibilities are endless in how this can be used as an investigative tool."

The plate recognition system is operated with eight cameras mounted on the light-bar of a police cruiser. A processor in the back of the car reads the license plate number and compares it to national and local databases.

A global positioning system also logs the location of each vehicle, along with a date and time stamp.

For the test run Thursday, cameras were mounted on a civilian car driven by Ray Walker, the business development manager for Florida-based vendor NDI Technologies.

Fort Oglethorpe Police Chief Larry Black rode along and radioed to patrol officers when the system detected a license plate associated with a suspected violation.

In three hours of testing, the system photographed 1,467 licenses plates and alerted police to 14 suspects. Most of the violations were for driving without insurance or suspended registration.

Several citations were issued, and one arrest was made.

"The technology available to law enforcement is pretty amazing," Chief Black said.

High-tech help doesn't come without a price, though.

Chief Black said installing the equipment would cost between $30,000 and $35,000 per patrol car. He said drug money collected from drug arrest seizurescould help pay for the equipment.

There are no immediate plans to purchase the equipment, but Chief Black said he will develop a report based on Thursday's test to present to the Fort Oglethorpe City Council, which would have to approve any purchase.

Costs have kept many agencies in Georgia from experimenting with license plate reader programs, said Dwayne Orrick, president of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. He said many departments still are trying to equip their patrol cars with laptop computers for more efficient report filing.

"The big issue is the cost of technology," said Mr. Orrick, chief of the Cordele Police Department in South Georgia. "You've got to look at cost of services versus the benefits."

Chief Black said the benefit of the license plate reader system is more efficiency from officers and improved crime detection.

"I hope Georgia will get up to speed like Florida and some of the other states, and get on board and get up to date like we should be," Chief Black said. "From a law enforcement perspective, any tool like this that can help us do our job, we are in support of it."

City Council member Richard Egeland said he'd have to see a report on the system's efficiency before voting to purchase it, but he said cost is not the main issue if it involves public safety.

"Any technology that helps (the police) versus the criminal, I'm supportive of," Mr. Egeland said.

Council member Jane Moye said she's excited about the potential benefits of the equipment.

Mr. Walker, who represents one of many license plate recognition vendors in the United States, said the equipment will soon become "very pervasive."

He said the technology has been used for 30 years in the United Kingdom, where more than four million patrol cameras are in place.

Mr. Walker said the technology in the United States is still in its "infancy." He said programs used in the United Kingdom had to be reconfigured when they arrived here approximately four years ago in order to read the wide variety of specialty licenses plates used in America.

The system can still misread a car tag, and police must double-check any information from the program with a local database to prevent erroneous charges.

The University of Kentucky, however, reports the automated licenses plate system has been 98 percent accurate in the two years it has been used by campus police.

Don Thorton, the university's parking and transportation services director, said the cameras had been mounted on a parking garage, but this year are being used on patrol vehicles.

"It's been, from all indications, a success," he said.

Copyright 2007 Chattanooga Times Free Press

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