APD looks to expand successful license plate reader program

APD looks to expand successful license plate reader program
The Alexandria Police Department has seen success with the new license plate reading technology. (File photo)

By Rachel Royster

Since March, the Alexandria Police Department has recovered 22 stolen vehicles, issued 37 arrests or warrants, located two missing persons and recovered more than $350,000 of stolen property with the help of six license plate readers. 

The department also apprehended a fugitive from western Wisconsin who escaped from prison, stole a vehicle and drove to Alexandria. Using the technology, Alexandria police located and successfully apprehended them. 

Alexandria Police Department Lieutenant Jason North said because the existing six devices have exceeded expectations, the technology “absolutely” fits into the department’s public safety strategy. 

Automatic License Plate Readers are a piece of equipment that consists of at least one camera, a computer and computer software used to automatically recognize and interpret the characters on vehicle license plates. This data is then compared against a list of license plates bearing some significance to law enforcement. 

North said though the department has used the technology for more than a decade, the license plate readers were mounted on police cars, prior to March. Now, the technology is in fixed locations that are disproportionately impacted by crime. 

The current plan is to deploy 12 more license plate readers as soon as they can be purchased and installed. 

The Automatic License Plate Readers were put in place to aid the department in combating the recent crime spike in Alexandria and elsewhere. 

“One of the most impactful ways this … technology can impact crime is assisting APD to intercept stolen vehicles in real time,” North said. “What we have found through research and experience is that stolen vehicles are oftentimes being used to commit other crimes. Having this technology to allow us to quickly intercept the vehicle not only allows us to address that crime at hand, but likely is allowing us to prevent a future crime from occurring.” 

Since the implementation of the license plate readers, North said he’s anecdotally seen fewer and fewer stolen vehicles, though he said other variables may also be at play. 

“We’ve made a very intentional effort to share with the public that we’re using this technology. … This is not a clandestine effort,” North said. “We want the community to know – and frankly, we want the criminals to know – that we are using technology to be a force multiplier and help us to drive down concerning trends.” 

Like many other departments across the nation, North said APD has run into difficulty recruiting and retaining new officers to the field. Though he’d like to see those positions filled, the license plate reading technology helps to supplement for the loss. 

“But we certainly need our officers on the street. This technology is not intended to replace our officers, but really just enhance the impact that they can have,” North said. 

With the current recruitment and retention issues, money that would typically be used to fund those officers goes into “vacancy savings.” Now, instead of having to expand the department budget, the money accrued is being spent on license plate readers, with each device costing the city $3,000 annually. 

Between the six deployed license plate readers since March, the department has seen an average of 2.6 million plate reads per month, with about 220 of those being hits. 

The devices, all located on public roadways, only capture a picture of the exterior of the vehicle and the associated license plate. The data gathered in then cross referenced with a “hot list” of vehicles and plates associated with crimes like stolen vehicles, criminal activity, fugitives and missing persons or children. When a match is made, an officer is notified and given the opportunity to intercept the vehicle and take appropriate action. 

North said in order to safeguard the privacy of citizens, the plate reads are only retained for 30 days, after which the data is permanently deleted. The police department also has a weekly audit process, where a sworn supervisor examines all officer usage of the system. If abuse of the system is found, there will be an internal investigation followed by appropriate action from the department. 

In Fairfax County, Automatic License Plate Readers have been deployed on some police cars since 2011. 

According to the official city website, the Arlington County Police department does not use Automatic License Plate Readers, though the Commissioner of Revenue Office has since 2018. The office uses the technology to ensure that “all vehicles regularly garaged in the county are in compliance with registration, licensure and personal property tax provisions.” The Arlington data is only kept for 24 hours. 

North said license plate reader technology is increasingly becoming a law enforcement best practice. 

Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said the technology is “tremendously valuable” as an investigative tool. She said across the Commonwealth, data and records are only kept if it is relevant to an ongoing investigation. 

“I think that people understand that they’re used for a very limited purpose, particularly in the investigation of criminal activity,” Schrad said. “Records of non-related license plate numbers and so forth, are not kept by the agency. In other words, they don’t do this broad gathering of license plate numbers and then just keep them. … It’s not even useful to keep that data.” 

Schrad said as technology continues to improve and is better understood by the public, she thinks the public will appreciate the use of license plate readers. 

“It’s more reliable than the human eye,” Schrad said. “It’s something that is a tool that really improves the ability of law enforcement to do investigations and do them more efficiently and more quickly.”