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LAPD Is spotting car thieves in blink of a digital eye

The LAPD is testing a camera that can capture up to 2,000 images an hour to scan license plates and compare them to a database, giving instant results.

The Los Angeles Police Department is testing a mobile, computerized camera system that could markedly improve its chances of arresting car thieves at a time when auto theft accounts for nearly a quarter of property crimes.

The new system uses tiny digital cameras — either hand-held or mounted on the top of a police car — to scan license plates and compare them to a state database of 123,000 stolen vehicles. The cameras can capture up to 2,000 images an hour on the freeway, in parking lots or on streets.

"You drive down the street and it literally pulls up every single car plate and tells you whether it''s stolen," said Det. Bob Graybill, head of the LAPD''s San Fernando Valley-based Community Effort to Combat Auto Theft. "This is going to change everything."

Like price scanners in checkout lines at markets, the results are virtually instantaneous, meaning an officer is alerted the moment the system focuses on the plate of a vehicle that has been reported stolen. With infrared capacity, the cameras can be used in the dark.

Graybill''s squad is experimenting with two systems: a hand-held British-designed device that works like a radar gun, and a vehicle-mounted unit.

Mobile units developed by Remington Elsag Law Enforcement Systems can scan traffic in both directions, at freeway speeds.

And later this month, the LAPD will begin testing a 360- degree camera system that is capable of working out numbers of partly obscured plates, said Officer Mike Wang.

"I''d like to have a car outfitted with this technology in every division in the first half of this year," said Asst. Chief George Gascon. "We''re experimenting with a few different systems from the manufacturers to try to work out what''s best."

Gascon said he hopes to get help to fund the purchases — at $20,000 to $30,000 per device — from the insurance industry and towing companies, which benefit from the recovery of stolen vehicles.

"This is about prevention as much as apprehension. It could prove a major deterrent to car thieves," Gascon said.

Although only a handful of American agencies have taken advantage of the technology, it is used widely in Europe. In Italy, those caught in the technological net include tax cheaters and speeders, as well as car thieves.

That impact on crime beyond auto theft is also reflected in a recent study by British police. In one trial, with cameras connected to a national database, more than 13,000 arrests were made in a year. Many were for offenses such as burglary and narcotics.

In Britain, gas stations use the systems to deter people who fill up and don''t pay. More than 200 cameras are used to help enforce London''s $9 charge on vehicles entering the city center.

Barry Hugill, a spokesman for the British civil rights group Liberty, said it has no philosophical objection to the use of technology to combat crime, but said his group is concerned about controlling its use and safeguarding against unauthorized access.

Private investigators, he said, should never be allowed to tap the system to "track down an errant husband or wife," Hugill said.

Those concerns are shared by the American Civil Liberties Union. How the information is maintained, employed and its accuracy assured is the main concern, said Ricardo Garcia of the ACLU of Southern California.

"Some car thieves switch plates with legitimate vehicle owners. How will they approach that person?" Garcia said.

"It also eliminates the reasonable suspicion officers usually have to stop a car. Officers will assume a vehicle is stolen if the computer tells them so."

Remington''s Paul Joyal, a former police officer, offered a civil liberties argument in favor of the system, which he hailed as an "egalitarian form of policing."

"It runs every plate," Joyal said. "It doesn''t leave it to the officer and potential personal prejudices."

In America, Manalapan, Fla., has made extensive use of the plate technology. The upscale community installed cameras last year with the capacity to snap the license plates of all vehicles entering the waterfront town. A comparison is made with a stolen-car database, and police can check for other criminal connections.

In Ohio, the Highway Patrol ran a four-month test last year on the Ohio Turnpike and nabbed 23 suspects and 24 stolen vehicles worth a total of $221,000; a 50% increase in recovery rates.

Also last year, tax collectors in New Haven, Conn., began using hand-held devices to check plates for cars registered to drivers who are delinquent in paying car taxes and other fines. Arlington County, Va., has a similar program.

And the California Highway Patrol is testing and evaluating a license plate recognition system, said Tom Marshall, a department spokesman.

The devices were tested first in the San Fernando Valley, the favorite haunt of thieves, who stole 28,000 cars citywide last year. The testing ground was the Topanga shopping mall during the busy Christmas shopping season. Six people were arrested and 17 stolen cars were recovered in just a few days, Graybill said.

LAPD officers scanning parked cars made the first hit, a Pontiac that had been reported stolen. In the car was a 21-year-old woman. Undercover officers arrested her on suspicion of car theft. Then another woman, 20, approached the vehicle, laden with packages.

As the case developed, Graybill said, the LAPD had not only recovered a stolen car, but also cracked a major shoplifting ring.

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