License plate readers help police find stolen cars

Finding stolen cars is a passion for Tacoma Police Officer Matthew Graham.

During the seven years he’s been with the department, he’s started many a shift by scouring the “hot sheet,” a list of stolen cars from Pierce and adjacent counties, at the start of his shift. During patrol, he would run the plates of cars that fit the descriptions through his in-car computer.

Last year he found 28 stolen vehicles that way — more than any other officer in Tacoma.

“If my car was stolen, I’d want to get it back as soon as possible,” Graham said.

Now he has a new tool to catch car thieves: an automated license plate reader.

Two small black boxes mounted near his patrol SUV’s bumper house cameras that capture license plates faster than Graham can read them.

Graham still looks at the local hot sheet at the start of his graveyard shift, but at the same time, his car’s computer software also downloads a longer hot sheet of stolen cars from around the nation and Canada. As he drives around Tacoma, the license plate reader checks the plates it captures against that list.

“Technology is mind-boggling these days,” Graham said. “It wasn’t even 10 or 15 years ago that computers weren’t in patrol cars. I have to imagine (license plate readers) will become stock on every patrol car.”

On a recent graveyard shift, Graham pulled out of the Tacoma Police Department parking lot on South Pine Street and began his patrol of the East Side.

As he drove down 72nd Street, the units honed in on license plates’ reflective surfaces. Even in the dark, the infrared camera can capture an image that reads the plate number and compares it against a database of stolen cars, Amber Alerts or fugitives from justice.

A soft beep indicates the capture of a plate not listed on a law enforcement hot sheet. The computer logs a picture of every car, the plate number, the time of the sighting and the GPS location.

Graham often drives through grocery store or casino parking lots while his license plate reader records all plates in sight, sounding a succession of quick soft beeps. He said he captures 2,500 to 5,000 plates on an average night.

Every now and then, the computer screen flashes red and the sound becomes more urgent. Most of the time, it’s a false match. The computer program can read the numbers on a plate, but it can’t tell what state or province the plate is from.

But when it is a match and the car is on the move, Graham said he calls for backup.

“You always get a bit of adrenalin,” he said of when the computer signals a hit. “Is there a murderer in there?”

The camera on Graham’s SUV is one of three deployed on Tacoma police vehicles. It was purchased by Pierce County’s Auto Crimes Enforcement Task Force, which includes several area police departments, and is funded by a $10 surcharge the Legislature added to every traffic ticket in 2007.

The automated license plate reader is one of the latest tools officers now use to catch criminals, but Washington State Patrol Detective Sgt. Nestor Bautista said the device has its limits. Bautista, the supervisor of the auto crimes task force, said Lakewood and Tacoma are the only two local agencies with license plate readers.

“If the unit is working reliably, it’s very reliable,” he said. “As for how effective it is, it’s strictly by chance, whether there’s a stolen car by the cameras.”

Still, there’s luck and then there’s working the beat.

Graham said he catches so many stolen cars because he knows the thieves’ haunts. He pulls up a map on his computer that shows where cars went missing and where some were later found. Clusters of recovered vehicles show up on the map, and those are the places he likes to go “hunting.”

“It’s awesome when we catch some of these people and the prowls stop,” he said.

Police use the device in other ways as well. After a major crime occurs, police will use the cameras to capture the license plates of any cars in the area for detectives to examine later.

“As the LPR car, anytime a shooting happens in the city I will head there,” Graham said. “Witnesses and suspects will not want to stay around.”

The police department got its first license plate reader in 2009. Now the city plans to expand its use of the technology by adding a license plate reader for parking enforcement. Parking officers would be able to tell if a car has overstayed the time limit in a parking zone or if the registered owner has several unpaid parking tickets.

“The whole thing is to get compliance,” said Public Works Director Kurtis Kingsolver. “It’s not to capture people.”

Similar to the police system, the parking units would report hits on vehicles tied to Amber Alerts and stolen cars. Police would be notified of the location of that vehicle. Kingsolver said the system will be rolled out later this year.

The technology is not without its critics.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington has expressed concern about automated license plate readers for the way some police departments retain data on innocent civilians. Three years ago the ACLU surveyed two dozen police departments across the state. More than half were using the technology.

“The cameras can be capturing absolutely every license plate that they go by whether or not it’s a stolen car or a car associated with a felon who still has an outstanding warrant,” said Jamela Debelak, ACLU of Washington’s technology and liberty director.

Graham said having the unit allows him to focus on the rest of the job instead of also entering plates into the computer by hand.

“It allows me to not only observe more of what’s going on around me,” he said. “The cameras are capable of reading so many more license plates than what I’m capable of reading myself.”