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Log in, track down: Plate-scanning website can help make arrests

When people are on the run, they tend to move

In cities across the country, fleets of cars drive predetermined routes through high-traffic business and residential neighborhoods, where they scan and photograph license plates for PlateNet, an online database whose creators say will make police officers' jobs easier.  

"When people are on the run, they tend to move," Andy Robinson said, "so the ability to access where and when a license plate was spotted makes intercepting the suspect less about guesswork and more about strategy."

That strategy relies on data, as Robinson demonstrated using an account set up to mirror the user experience of any officer who completes the registration process, which involves  filling out a short form and verifying law enforcement credentials through a third party.

On the home screen is a simple search bar, where there are a couple ways to yield results within the 170 million scans on file. Search by license plate and if that vehicle is in the system, a Google Map appears tagging its recent locations, along with a date and timestamp.

"Historical scans give an idea of migration patterns of the vehicle, with frequency potentially revealing where a suspect lives or hangs out," Robinson said.

Or, if it's a location rather than a suspect that's piquing interest, an officer can alternatively search by location, which bring up every scan recorded within a half mile to reveal the area's traffic flow or frequent visitors.

But where it really gets exciting, Robinson said, is live hits.

Subscribers are invited to create a list of "most wanted" plates, and if a matching scan enters the system, PlateNet will send an immediate text message or email to the owner of the list with a photo of the vehicle and a closeup shot of the license plate.

"The officer can choose what to do next and take action right away if it's warranted," Robinson said.

The service is free for the first month, and costs $99 per month afterward.

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