The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) has been using license plate recognition (LPR) for approximately five years with substantial success. We have learned many lessons since our first three pilot mobile LPR systems were deployed in the City of Compton in 2007. Since then, our LPR fleet has grown to cover every LASD station (except Catalina Island) with at least one LPR vehicle dedicated to each station’s reporting district. Also, thanks to the recent installation of the Panasonic CF-31 MDC in all of our patrol vehicles, our LPR fleet has evolved into our most advanced system to date. We now have mobile capabilities that were previously available only from desk-bound work stations, and in some cases, were limited to our station detectives and other bureau investigators.
Following are some of the most important lessons from our successes and failures in the quest to get the most out of an LPR system from end to end.
Whenever one of our units or bureaus receives their first LPR vehicle, we suggest they use the vehicle on their night or graveyard shifts (between the hours of 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.). Nighttime LPR missions are some of the best times to capture useful data that can later help you locate vehicles associated with wanted suspects. Using this method, we have found criminals staying at the houses of girlfriends or accomplices or hiding out at motels. We have caught murder suspects within hours of a crime occurring using this technique. Some specialized teams have even adjusted their working hours to be able to drive LPR vehicles around late at night just to capture this valuable data.
Another way to capture LPR data is to have a few systems mounted on parking enforcement vehicles. We’ve seen that our parking enforcement personnel usually have a well-established pattern to complete their enforcement duties. When we tested the LPR system using a parking enforcement vehicle, we noticed that the parking enforcement staff’s driving patterns were very different than that of a patrol deputy in that the parking enforcement personnel drive in close proximity to parked vehicles. Unfortunately, this driving style degraded the performance of the existing LPR system. With the help of our LPR vendor, we modified the system to use a much wider view LPR camera lens, which allows us to capture data on nearly 100% of the parked vehicles. The LPR system also warns our parking enforcement officers if they run across a dangerous or wanted vehicle, letting them obtain assistance from deputy personnel.
These changes in equipment and technique have helped us increase the recovery rate of abandoned stolen vehicles, provide added safety to parking enforcement officers, and increase collection of LPR data—all in the normal course of business.
Fixed LPR Cameras
We learned very early on that installing fixed LPR cameras must be a well-planned strategy because they’re expensive and not easily relocated after installation. We try to stick with a strategy of installations on major thoroughfares, ingress and egress points to freeways, and other specific locations that suspect vehicles are likely to flee past after the commission of a crime.
Fixed camera data is monitored at the closest station dispatch for the quickest response. Notification on a wanted vehicle usually occurs over a local tactical frequency to all field units in the vicinity who can then try to intercept the wanted vehicle. This method works especially well in conjunction with a CCTV system monitored at the station desk. This gives our desk personnel “eyes” on the fleeing vehicle almost immediately, allowing them to update the direction of travel of the wanted vehicle to the responding units.
Automatic Data Transfer
We know that our deputies are busy and can forget to complete the LPR “end shift” procedure that exports all the data captured during their shift. The PIPS Technology system (now owned by 3M) gives us the ability to upload LPR data and update hotlists “on the fly” from our mobile LPR units.
The PIPS Technology LPR software uses the cellular backbone of our MDC system to accomplish this task and has almost completely automated the entire LPR “begin shift” and “end shift” procedures. We’ve eliminated several manual procedures that were required to update or synchronize the LPR data, making the LPR system much more user-friendly than in the past. No more waiting for Wi-Fi signals to connect, or dealing with slow data uploads. This process ensures that the captured data gets into the database in near-real time, possibly making a difference in a critical investigation.
Los Angeles County is 4,057 square miles in size. Although the LASD has jurisdictional responsibility over the whole area, we primarily have a patrol footprint within our contracted city boundaries and unincorporated areas. Unfortunately, this creates inconsistent LPR coverage for the county as a whole.
In many areas, we conduct law enforcement operations adjacent to cities that have their own autonomous police departments using their own LPR technology. It was clear to us that sharing our LPR data with other law enforcement agencies was going to be a key factor in solving crimes. With the PIPS Technology BOSS (Back Office System Software) platform, the ability to share data with another BOSS system is relatively simple. In our region, most of the other LPR operators use the same PIPS Technology system. This makes data sharing quite easy. We just connect our BOSS systems together and with a few extra clicks, we can easily search each other’s LPR databases. Since crooks have never been known to stop at jurisdictional boundaries, investigators appreciate having this valuable capability at their fingertips.
We allow all of our crime analysts and sworn personnel to access the LPR database. We’ve been doing this since the inception of our program because allowing broad access to the system speeds up the processing of an investigative lead, which may resolve an incident in a matter of minutes instead of days or weeks. Our crime analysts have been some of the strongest proponents in the use of the BOSS platform. They are able to take the LPR records and photos and insert them into other tools to assist detectives in their investigations.
One great way to make LPR more effective is to give your system something more to look for than just stolen cars. We’ve been developing hotlists derived from several data sources that include license plate information. These are automatically uploaded into our LPR servers for distribution to our mobile and fixed LPR systems. Through our data-sharing system, we can share the hotlist with other agencies; several of them have been using these hotlists with great success.
We’ve already completed warrant and scofflaw hotlists and are working on several others that will provide meaningful alerts to our personnel in the field. As an example, our soon-to-be-tested “CSAR” hotlist will provide California Sex and Arson Registrant alerts. This information could potentially stop a crime before it occurs by giving deputies the ability to identify a registered sex offender potentially looking to commit a crime near a school or playground.
Let your existing system help you by keeping track of its use and successes. We had a difficult time keeping up with how well our systems were performing until we gave our personnel a way to identify their use of the LPR system in their clearance of calls, traffic stops and investigations. LASD added a statistical tracking code specifically for occasions when LPR data was used. This helps us to track where and how LPR data and systems are used and in what types of incidents LPR technology is helping our field personnel and investigators solve crimes. This information is also provided to decision-makers to justify costs and additional funding for more LPR systems.
GPS Check Plate
If you’re using LPR technology, at some point you’ll get called into court to explain how the LPR system was used to help solve a crime. One technique that can help in establishing the accuracy of an operating LPR system is to have a GPS check plate mounted at the entrance or exit of where the LPR vehicle is deployed from. This provides you and the operator a precise way to track the GPS performance of the LPR system, which passes the date and time, as well as the latitude and longitude, to the LPR data record. The concept is that if the LPR system was working accurately before and after, everything in-between is also accurate.
A Final Word
LPR is a force-multiplying technology with extensive applications and benefits for law enforcement. But getting the most out of your system requires a well-planned, strategic deployment and some creativity in how the data is gathered, used and shared. By sharing successes and failures among LE agencies, we can ensure that we are all using these valuable systems to their utmost capability.
Deputy Sam Paul has more than 16 years of experience with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. His assignments include Men’s Central Jail, Century Station in Lynwood, Calif., and the Advanced Surveillance and Protection (ASAP) Unit. Deputy Paul has taught LPR usage and deployment strategies in California, Arizona, Illinois and South Carolina. He has also been involved in several focus groups to help agencies utilize their LPR systems effectively. Deputy Paul was assigned to the ASAP Unit at its inception to help start LASD’s deployment of LPR, city-wide CCTV installations, and gunshot detection technologies. LASD’s ASAP unit also researches new technologies for use in the patrol environment.