8 steps to successful implementation of an ALPR system

Creating and using ALPR is no longer in the category of innovative policing – it is an essential tool for effective law enforcement


Automated license plate recognition (ALPR) technology is an important tool in a police department’s arsenal. There are several steps agencies must follow to successfully implement an ALPR system, which include officer training, community education and policy development regarding management of the technology and the information it provides.

Here are some things to consider based on the experience of program administrators and users. Special thanks to Lt. Jason Potts of the Vallejo (California) Police Department and Sgt. Patrick Rauzy of Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) Patrol Division Special Projects.

1. Plan for acquisition of the right equipment and vendor services

Mississippi's new standard license plate, unveiled Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi's new standard license plate, unveiled Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Interviewing users and agency administrators from a variety of agencies will help you gain knowledge from their lessons learned. While it is tempting to look at departments that fit the same profile as your own agency, don’t limit your inquiries to those with the same number of officers, geographic span, or demographics. Every community has its own enforcement goals and crime problems that might be addressed using data from ALPRs.

Establishing technical specifications must take into account that not every vendor has the best solution for every project. “Get the best system for your purpose,” said Sgt. Rauzy, who consulted on KCPD’s initial ALPR program.

Fixed and mobile points can have different requirements for optics and hardware configuration. Some systems may be easier to integrate with existing in-car dash cam systems than others. Consider what cameras might be useable for temporary placement in targeted areas that may not have the same power and network access as established roadway intersections where fixed cameras are usually placed.

2. Plan for more storage

Once patrol officers, detectives and crime analysts discover the value of ALPRs, the rate of use and demand for expanding the program with more cameras is inevitable.

Know what storage capacity is available on department-owned networks, and what caps are on the total number of readings to be stored on the vendor’s proprietary systems.

Ask whether new data from a future expansion of the system will be allowed in your current license, and whether old data is automatically overwritten once the maximum storage has been reached in the contract.

3. Plan for sustainability

When funds are budgeted or awarded in a grant, departments often obtain equipment without a guarantee of future funding for maintenance and replacement. As programs expand or equipment fails – mobile units are on patrol cars and patrol cars crash – replacement equipment will likely be a technological upgrade from the same original vendor, or a new vender with unique proprietary features. Enabling systems to feed data in to one searchable database will avoid multiple searches from different vendor products that may use different features and different data sources than the legacy system.

Rauzy and his team in Kansas City developed an inhouse coding that enables different equipment and systems to be routed to a common data pool that can be accessed through a single web interface from agency terminals. The system is also compatible with their existing report management system. 

One way to afford the systems is to cooperate regionally or with a task force to share costs and custody of the equipment. This also answers questions about sharing data with outside agencies, which otherwise raises concerns about costs and privacy.

Cameras that are damaged should be kept for spare parts. Lt. Jason Potts reminds users to be clear on what warranties exist and what experiences other users have had with customer service.

4. Plan for a mix of mobile, fixed and portable cameras

A common expectation of ALPRs is that car-mounted cameras will yield the greatest amount of usable data with more arrests and case clearances than fixed. Agencies are finding that fixed points have resulted in highly valuable outcomes.

There are two basic uses for ALPR data. One is the immediate “hit” on a wanted or stolen vehicle, the other is the investigative value of discovering patterns of movement of vehicles that may be associated with a crime. With fixed points, officers can stage “downstream” and intercept a suspect vehicle, allowing more planning time than encountering an alert on a mobile device. Therefore, agencies will likely find more live hits from fixed points, and more investigative value from data from mobile units.

For temporary camera placement, the need for lighting, mounting and internal power and data storage are different than for mobile or permanent fixed points. Fixed points can become known to offenders who will avoid those routes but may have developed patterns that can be captured on an unanticipated temporary camera location.

5. Plan for policy and training

It is said that there are two things police officers don’t like. One is new stuff and the other is the stuff they already have. As with any new technology, strategy, or procedure, “selling” the value is part of the program. Educating officers on the practical uses of ALPRs – better stats, more arrests and more solved cases – along with training to operate and access the system, will make use of the technology increasingly routine and part of the organization’s standard operations.

Citizens should be educated about the program as well. Government leaders will hear from groups with privacy concerns, so educate these leaders at the inception of the ALPR program. Publicly accessible policies that show how ALPR data is stored, shared and used are important safeguards. A common public perception is that ALPRs get the registered owner data automatically along with capturing the license number. This leads to fears that Citizen Baker’s name will show up at specific locations, on some registry or intelligence file, or that a person’s race, sex, or home address will lead to profiling. Citizens can be assured that determining registered owner information requires a separate and additional investigative effort that must be based on articulable facts.

6. Plan along with other government entities

A good working relationship with the agency’s technology department, street department and civilian managers is an important part of planning. For example, if fixed cameras are going to be placed on existing traffic light infrastructure, who will be doing the installation? Can the power source be tied into the poles? Is there network access via wireless broadband or fiber infrastructure for transmitting data from that location? Is additional lighting needed in order to maximize the infrared character readers? Is the location consistent with the camera’s focal length and shutter speed? Will law enforcement be notified if the ALPR host traffic device is being repaired or the support structure is damaged?

7. Plan for ongoing research and evaluation

Arrest and clearance rates traced to information from ALPR data is relatively easy to collect to validate the agency’s decision to invest in the technology. Determining the technology’s best use invites more than mere evaluation. Conducting research that compares success rates between use and non-use of ALPRs or certain features is a more reliable way to determine its effectiveness in meeting specific law enforcement objectives.

An important difference between research and evaluation is that evaluation necessarily compares before and after numbers. Arresting five car thieves the year before you bought cameras compared to arresting 10 the year after you bought cameras is not conclusive evidence that the cameras were the one thing that made the difference. Detractors could argue that other factors resulted in more thefts occurring or more arrests being made.

Research allows isolation of a single factor that differs in one trial group compared to another during the same time frame, so that the influence of that single factor can be determined. Lt. Jason Pott’s research in his city yielded a definitive measure of the advantages and outcomes of ALPRs, resulting in concrete data used to further develop and deploy the technology.

Keeping lines of communication open with system users is critical. One agency initially had alerts to in-car data terminals for all warrant hits. When patrol officers discovered that the hits were not filtered by priority and they were inundated with parking warrants of little interest to them, they turned off notifications. Had this not been known to system managers, the utility of the system would have been severely compromised. A new system of tiered notification was developed to address the problem.

8. Plan for the future by watching for innovations

The future of ALPR technology is toward more useful information. Reducing “bad reads” such as phone numbers on panel trucks and reading street signs will create less wasted storage space. Better imaging and artificial intelligence may allow cameras to search for vehicle make, model and color in addition to just license characters. Integration of other surveillance cameras with ALPR cameras, as well as with gunshot sound locaters, holds promise as well.

Creating and using ALPR is no longer in the category of innovative policing. It has rapidly become an essential tool in keeping up with the demands for effective law enforcement.

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