On Oct. 24, 2008, Kevin Harper and his fianc e were traveling eastbound, from Spokane, Wash., on Interstate 90 in a white Volkswagen bug to a Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, "hitching post" to get married. As they crossed the state line into Idaho, the vehicle activated the Kootenai County license plate recognition (LPR) system. Immediately, a color picture of the vehicle they were driving and an audible tone alerted the Post Falls (Idaho) 9-1-1 communications center that the vehicle had been reported stolen in nearby Yakima, Wash. Officers were immediately alerted and responded to the area to try and intercept the vehicle.
Within 10 minutes of entering Idaho, the prospective Mr. and Mrs. were in custody for possession of a stolen vehicle and other felony crimes. During a search of the vehicle, officers located a loaded Glock .40-caliber handgun in the front seat. The gun, allegedly stolen by the couple the previous night, had been used in a string of residential burglaries. At the conclusion of the investigation, the pair was booked into jail on numerous felony charges.
Progressive police departments are starting to recognize the true value of technology, such as LPR, in helping them do their jobs. LPR was introduced to the United States and first tested in a law enforcement application in 2004, and it has quickly become a valuable tool for law enforcement in the struggle to reduce crime, apprehend suspects and recover stolen vehicles.
According to Rick Adams, commander with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, "The implementation of the [LPR] system within the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's technology tool[box] has proved to be beneficial beyond our expectations."
The Kootenai County Project
Kootenai County, located in north Idaho, has a population of 140,000 and is one of the state's fastest growing communities. Spokane, a metropolitan area, joins Kootenai County on its western border. The cities inside the county have experienced explosive growth rates, which have resulted in an increase in criminal activity. Interstate 90, a major east west corridor, is positioned between two of the largest cities in the county: Coeur d'Alene being the largest, with a population of 45,000, and Post Falls, with a population of 26,000. Each day, approximately 40,000 vehicles travel along Interstate 90 through both Post Falls and Coeur d'Alene.
In late 2005, the Kootenai County Sheriff's Department, Coeur d'Alene Police Department and the Post Falls Police Department (PFPD) collaborated to develop a countywide LPR project. With the growth in criminal activity, all three agencies recognized the benefits of using LPR technology to improve service and enhance safety in their jurisdictions. After spending several months researching the new technology, the three agencies were awarded a $125,000 grant by the Idaho Department of Homeland Security. The grant provided funding to install fixed LPR cameras along Interstate 90 and three mobile LPR systems to be mounted on patrol vehicles. Each agency would receive a mobile LPR unit as part of the Homeland Security project. One back office server would be used to store the data captured by all three agencies.
In 2006, after meeting with two of the major LPR manufacturers, the three agencies teamed up with PIPS Technology, a Tennessee based LPR company, to supply the equipment for the project. The PFPD would handle the project management, with logistical support from the other participating agencies. As part of the project design the back office server would reside at the PFPD with a secure virtual private network (VPN) connection to the participating agencies. The agencies would download their license plate databases from this server and upload all captured plate data at the conclusion of the shift. The fixed cameras would store data on the back office server in real time. The back-office server is available to each agency for data review and analysis.
The project was divided into two phases: mobile and fixed.
The mobile portion of the project included the manufacturer installations of LPR equipment in one patrol vehicle from each of the three agencies. Three dual-lens LPR systems were selected, and two camera housings were mounted adjacent to the light bar on the roof of the patrol vehicle facing forward. Each housing has two cameras integrated, one color camera and one infrared (IR) camera. These cameras read license plates of vehicles on both sides of the police unit, allowing the system to capture vehicle plates coming and going in both adjacent lanes. A third camera housing is positioned directly off of the passenger side of the vehicle, allowing the unit to read license plates of parked vehicles as the patrol vehicle travels through a parking lot. All three cameras capture images at the same time.
The three cameras are tethered to a ruggedized, trunk-mounted computer processor, called SupeRex. The collection, deciphering and storage of license plate data all occur on the SupeRex, which is connected to the MDC in the patrol car via an Ethernet cable. Using PAGIS (Police ALPR Graphical Interface System), a client software loaded on the MDC, the officer can view the color images of the vehicles, as well as the IR images of the license plate read and the text conversion. The software also provides the officer visual and audible alerts and allows for limited data mining in the vehicle. The majority of the processing occurs on the SupeRex, tapping very little of the MDC's processing power.
As part of the mobile project, a wireless connection was established from each patrol car to the back office server. The server is configured with two separate databases; both are downloaded by the officer at the beginning of the shift. The first database is a list of all stolen vehicles from eight surrounding states. The back office server retrieves this database automatically one time per day from the FBI via a secure Internet connection. The second, "manual" database has manual entries of vehicles that law enforcement investigators are interested in for a variety of reasons. The manual database is managed by the Post Falls 9-1-1 center, which is responsible for entering and removing vehicles as necessary. At the beginning of their shift, an officer needs to click a "begin shift" button in PAGIS and the most recent database is wirelessly transferred to the trunk-mounted computer. At the completion of their shift, officers click the "end shift" button and the patrol car uploads the captured images to the back office server via the wireless connection. (The back-office server was purchased with sufficient capacity to store captured data and images for two years.)
While the mobile installation was nearing completion and the engineering of the fixed portion of the project was well underway, the agencies decided to locate LPR cameras at two separate locations along Interstate 90. These two locations would allow all license plates on vehicles traveling both east and west along the Interstate to be read. A microwave backbone was already in place with the ability to wirelessly transmit the data from each location immediately to the back office server for analysis.
During the engineering process, the partnering agencies identified two freeway overpasses that would provide good strategic locations and also a good mounting structure and electrical power source for the camera equipment. The first location selected was in the City of Post Falls, approximately 1 mile from the Washington border. This location would allow law enforcement to read eastbound vehicles entering into Idaho from Washington. From this location, the first off ramp was two miles distant. Location of the nearest off ramps was an important consideration, because the agencies wanted to ensure that officers responding to a hit would have the opportunity to respond and intercept a suspect vehicle before the vehicle had the opportunity to exit the freeway.
The second location selected was in the city of Coeur d'Alene. These cameras would capture the plates of vehicles traveling westbound, leaving the city. This was also an excellent location; the nearest off ramp was four miles away, giving officers ample time to get into position once a hit is received.
After selecting the two locations, the agencies worked with the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) for several months. Because this technology had never been used in Idaho, there were many hurdles to overcome regarding affixing the equipment to the overpasses. A structural analysis was needed to ensure the equipment would not damage the structural integrity of the overpass, and the necessary permits had to be obtained. After receiving approval from ITD, a local electrical contractor installed the cameras and connected them into the wireless network. The manufacturer assisted in configuring the cameras, including aiming them to obtain the highest efficacy.
During the implementation of this new technology several obstacles had to be overcome. One such obstacle, common with technology projects, was the integration of the new LPR software with existing software. When the PAGIS software was installed on the MDC, officers experienced significant delays when switching between camera views. Example: When the officer would attempt to view the side parking lot camera, it would take up to one minute for the view to actually change. During the delay, the performance of the MDC was degraded. The delay was traced to a conflict with the encryption software. After working for several months with PIPS Technology and NetMotion (our encryption vendor), a compatibility issue was identified between the two software platforms, which PIPS and Netmotion quickly resolved.
The Kootenai County LPR project has been a huge success. Currently, there are more than 7 million reads stored on the back-office server, and approximately 35,000 plates per day are read by the system. As a result of this project, we've recovered dozens of stolen vehicles, and the back-office server is available to all agencies in the area.
Recently, the Boise (Idaho) Police Department started using the Kootenai County back-office server to retrieve and store data. A simple VPN connection over the Internet allows full use of the system. Several local, county and state agencies in Washington, Idaho and Montana, as well as federal agencies have access to the back-office server for data-mining purposes. Using the Internet and a password, they can quickly access the database and run plate searches. This search capability has proven useful for investigators, especially for drug enforcement officers. With LPR technology, investigators can monitor criminals who are suspects in the transportation of drugs to determine pickup and delivery patterns.
Using LPR, we've also solved numerous crimes, unrelated to stolen vehicles, by using the data mining capabilities of the back office server. Example: In October 2008, LPR data assisted during the investigation of a homicide in an adjoining jurisdiction. The suspect in the homicide claimed he wasn't present when the crime occurred. Using the system's data mining capabilities, investigators were able to rebut the suspect's alibi claim that he'd been in his home at the time of the crime. The LPR system had recorded his vehicle passing by one of the fixed LPR cameras shortly after the homicide occurred, coming from the direction of the crime. A confession was later obtained.
As a result of the implementation of a regional LPR system, investigators have been able to solve numerous crimes that go well beyond simple auto theft. PFPD Investigations Commander Pat Knight says, "Our division has solved several cases using this technology that more than likely would not have been solved otherwise."
In the case of Kootenai County, LPR has demonstrated its effectiveness; the possibilities are limitless.