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October 27, 2005
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Cameras nab car thieves

By Joseph M. Dougherty
Deseret Morning News

License-plate scan has detected 15 stolen vehicles in a month

The state's Motor Vehicle Enforcement Division has a new toy that they hope will "frighten" car thieves out of business.

A pair of infrared cameras mounted atop a car can scan the license plates of dozens of cars in a parking lot and within minutes tell the patrolling officer if any of those vehicles are stolen. The technology can even be used in moving traffic.

Already in the past month, officers have scanned 15,000 license plates, recovered 15 stolen vehicles and made seven arrests. And they haven't started patrolling with the technology full time.

"We want to frighten them out of the auto-theft business," said Kent Jorgensen, director of the Motor Vehicle Enforcement Division.

Every morning, the FBI updates its National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, database, which includes property information about stolen or missing property — boats, vehicles, boat and vehicle parts and guns.

Every morning, officers at Motor Vehicle Enforcement download the updated list to special computers and hit the road.

The set of digital infrared cameras — made by Pips Technology, of England — takes digital pictures of the raised numbers and letters on license plates and the vehicles on which they are mounted and records them inside the vehicle.

The officer has an LCD screen that shows images from front and rear cameras. The computer emits a beep each time a plate is recorded, and if the officer happens upon a car that has been flagged by NCIC, the reason for the flag is displayed with the picture.

That's how it happened Tuesday when three men were arrested when they were found in a stolen car. All three also had warrants for their arrests, Jorgensen said.

Saturday night was a similar story. While showing the Pips system off to Salt Lake City police, two men were arrested and confessed to stealing the car they were in, he said.

"You can adapt it to a lot of different uses," said Ken Hoyal, an agent with the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit, insurance-fraud-fighting organization.

For example, the system can be configured to look for expired registration or seek out specific license plates in case of an Amber Alert, Jorgensen said. Motor Vehicle Enforcement Sgt. Curtis Stoddard said the $25,000-per-vehicle system has already paid for itself because of the cars that have been recovered.

"It's like fishing," Stoddard said. "There are good days and bad days."

Stoddard has averaged one recovery for each day he patrols with the Pips system, he said.

But the state's Motor Vehicle Enforcement Division didn't have to pay for the Pips system. Two were purchased with grant money, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau and the Swanson Family Foundation have provided two others — one of which will be used by the Weber County Sheriff's Office.

No other jurisdictions in the state have the license-plate readers yet, but the day may come, Jorgensen said. In Italy, all but two police agencies in the country have outfitted every patrol vehicle with the readers.

The system isn't perfect, but it has a 90 percent accuracy when reading license plates, Stoddard said. Because there is a picture of the license plate along with the computer's rendering of it as text, the patrol officer can correct the computer if the camera misreads.

But when there's a confirmed hit, the patrol officer just has to call the local jurisdiction to make an arrest.

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