RALEIGH — Former city councilman Barlow Herget and his wife Millie had just finished a day of touring the beaches of Normandy in France when their children sent an email: someone had broken into their Cameron Park home and stolen a number of valuables, including their 2004 Honda Accord.
Barlow Herget did not think he would ever see the Honda again, but Raleigh police were able to find it about three weeks later using a device mounted on a patrol car that automatically scans license plates, looking for ones that have been stolen.
Automated License Plate Recognition consists of four cameras atop the patrol cars lights bar that are capable of scanning in all directions. The cameras are connected to a processor in the trunk that is in turn linked to the computer in the front seat.
Raleigh is the only police department in the Triangle with ALPR. The city has six of the devices, one in each police district. In recent weeks, the devices have helped police recover at least four stolen plates and two stolen vehicles that they otherwise probably would not have seen, said Raleigh police spokesman Jim Sughrue.
The device can scan up to 3,000 license plates in an hour. Along with alerting officers about stolen plates, the devices can assist with other crimes that may involve a suspect vehicle.
It can be used in missing person cases, abduction cases, bank robberies any crime that is license plate-related, Sughrue said. It has led to an exponential increase in the number of tags we are able to spot.
But some civil libertarians worry about the scanners. The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina does not oppose the technology, said spokesman Mike Meno, but says it raises tremendous privacy issues.
This is an issue that the national ACLU is looking at because the technology is being used more and more by local police departments, Meno said. The thing that is most troublesome to us is that in most cases the police will retain the data, even if a person is not charged with a crime.
Meno said the retained information can be used to link someone to a later criminal investigation or could lead to routine tracking of people who havent done anything wrong. He noted that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department policy states that the scanners can be used to confirm a criminal suspects alibi regarding his whereabouts at a particular time and date and that the scanners can be used for predictive purposes, particularly in high risk-crime areas with a focus on unusual traffic patterns.
Thats profiling, Meno said.
Charlotte-Mecklenburgs police are supposed to purge all information retained by the devices 18 months from the date it was recorded. By comparison, Raleighs policy states that officers must delete all scanned license plate information not linked to a specific criminal investigation within six months.
We question why police would need to retain that data for up to six months if the information isnt being used in an investigation, Meno said.
Sughrue, the Raleigh police spokesman, said in some instances police may not know the identity of person who is suspected of a crime.
In cases involving suspects or suspect vehicles...having short-term information from ALPRs provides an important tool that may be helpful in confirming or clearing a suspect, he said.
Raleighs policy also instructs officers to not deploy the devices unless there is a legitimate law enforcement need or a specific criminal investigation, and forbids officers from using the devices to intimidate or harass anyone.
How it works
When the software detects a stolen plate, a camera inside the device captures both color and infrared images of the vehicle and its license plate. The infrared images enable police to see the plates regardless of glare, darkness or other adverse conditions.
The devices cost $18,700 apiece. The department used money from the Governors Crime Commission to purchase three of the devices, and a grant from the N.C. Highway Safety program to purchase two more, with funding from police coffers purchasing the sixth, Sughrue said.
The break-in at the Herget home was reported to police the next day, Sughrue said. On Oct. 17, an officer riding a patrol car equipped with an ALPR was alerted about a stolen plate on Rock Quarry Road.
We can play whatever sound we want, Sughrue said of the alert. Currently, it plays a laser-type siren for stolen vehicles and a computer voice reads the others, like stolen plate.
After hearing the alert, the officer sees the scanned plate, along with a photo of the vehicle and the reason for the alert, Sughrue said.
The alert on Hergets Honda led to the arrest of Bradley Charles Smith, 23, and Joseph Daniel Speller Jr., 49, both of Raleigh. Police charged both men with one felony count each of possession of stolen goods, breaking and entering, larceny after breaking and entering, obtaining property by false pretenses and larceny of a motor vehicle, according to state records.
The way the police caught them was interesting, said Herget, who is still tooling around town in his Honda. They used technology I didnt realize we had.