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How one Florida PD uses license plate readers to catch criminals

An automated license plate reader system helps police in a Miami suburb develop leads and close cases


Sponsored by Vigilant Solutions

By Tim Dees for PoliceOne BrandFocus

Installing fixed cameras to record license plates and alert authorities of vehicles of interest is proving a worthwhile investment for one Florida city.

The city of Doral, Florida, installed automated license plate reader cameras at major entry points to capture the license plates of nearly all vehicles entering and leaving the city. Doral PD receives alerts on license plates flagged by the system for further attention. (image/Doral PD)
The city of Doral, Florida, installed automated license plate reader cameras at major entry points to capture the license plates of nearly all vehicles entering and leaving the city. Doral PD receives alerts on license plates flagged by the system for further attention. (image/Doral PD)

Doral is a relatively new city, incorporated in 2003, and it didn’t have its own police department until 2008. If you have ever flown in or out of Miami International Airport, you’ve probably been there. The city of about 60,000 people lies just west of the airport property.

The Doral PD began the process of adopting automated license plate reader (ALPR) technology in 2010 to monitor the city’s transient traffic after they discovered that most crimes in the city were committed by suspects who lived elsewhere. The city now has cameras installed at major entry points to capture the license plates of nearly all vehicles entering and leaving the city. The data is fed to the PD’s communications center, which receives alerts on license plates flagged by the system, supplied by Vigilant Solutions, for further attention.

License plates are run against both the national and state (NCIC and FCIC) wanted vehicle files in real time, as well as an internal database maintained by the Doral PD. Dispatchers are notified when the system detects a stolen vehicle, as well as those flagged for investigative interest. The latter category includes vehicles known to be owned or operated by carjackers, burglars, thieves and other criminals who might seek victims in Doral.

When a stolen vehicle triggers the system, dispatchers alert patrol officers of the vehicle description and direction of travel so they can attempt to locate the stolen car and arrest the driver.

Where most ALPR systems are mobile – meaning the cameras are mounted on patrol cars – Doral’s fixed camera system has proven its worth again and again. The department does have one patrol car equipped with a mobile ALPR system, but their immediate plans are to expand the fixed camera installations to cover all points of entry into the city within two years, rather than just the more heavily-traveled intersections they have covered now.

Solving car burglaries, auto thefts

Doral PD’s Captain Carlos Arango described other circumstances when the license plate data has played a key supporting role in an investigation.

“We had a carjacking where the victim’s car was stolen. We were able to enter the car into the Vigilant system, and through the intersection cameras that capture the regular traffic, we were able to find the car that was following the victim, and later the car that was following the victim’s car,” Arango said. “That’s how we were able to make our case against that guy.”

Another case where the Vigilant ALPR system proved its worth was with a series of car burglaries in July 2015. Detectives of the Doral PD’s Crime Suppression Team identified one suspect through review of CCTV footage from a Walmart and were then able to associate a vehicle and its license tag with that suspect.

Entering that tag into the ALPR system allowed detectives to place the vehicle in the areas and times of the crimes. The same group of suspects stole four cars during their campaign. Eventually, the CST detectives arrested four juveniles and recovered one firearm, four stolen cars and $85,000 in stolen property. The investigation also revealed the existence of a juvenile gang (called (the”400 Boys”), and assisted other agencies in solving related cases.

A series of “bank jugging” cases took place when victims were followed from banks after making large cash withdrawals. A security officer obtained a partial license plate and vehicle description, and the ALPR system was able to identify the suspect’s vehicle from this partial data.

The suspect vehicle turned out to be a rental. CST detectives found the suspect had swapped the car for another rental, but again located it with the aid of the ALPR. The CST kept the car on its radar for five hours with the aid of data from the ALPR, which established the most likely time and travel pattern. The case ended with the arrest of four suspects and the recovery of $1,200 in cash.

Doral PD supplements its fixed license plate reader camera installations with one mobile camera system mounted on a patrol car, but the department plans to expand the fixed camera installations to cover all points of entry into the city. (image/Doral PD)
Doral PD supplements its fixed license plate reader camera installations with one mobile camera system mounted on a patrol car, but the department plans to expand the fixed camera installations to cover all points of entry into the city. (image/Doral PD)

Acquisition and management of the system

Arango says that after overcoming a few initial hurdles, the Vigilant license plate reader system has proved its worth over the past four years.

Lt. Cathy Jewett, one of the program’s implementation managers, recommends that anyone contemplating a similar effort assign a project manager/stakeholder to oversee the project from beginning to end for a smooth rollout.

Oversight of the system falls to the city’s IT department, so there’s not a large direct load on the police department’s resources. Arango estimated the annual maintenance agreement cost at just under $100,000 annually.

Beyond the obvious benefits to crime suppression and investigation, the Vigilant license plate reader system provides traffic engineering data in almost real time. The system detects about 192,000 cars per day passing through the city limits. Currently, about 2 percent of the plate detections generate hits for stolen vehicles, missing persons, Amber Alerts, vehicles wanted in connection with felonies and sex offenders, among other categories of police interest.

Arango believes the ALPR system has been a worthwhile investment:

“Almost daily we use it to analyze crime trends in an effort to develop leads, solve crimes and save lives.”

About the Author

Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement websites who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. He can be reached at tim@timdees.com.

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