Area police look to license plate readers as crime-fighting tool

Several Dayton area law enforcement agencies are joining departments nationwide in using automatic license plate readers they say help reduce crime.

The devices are mounted to poles and capture license plates, vehicle descriptions, persons on bicycles or other vehicles and records them on still frame pictures or short recordings that go to a cloud storage system. That information is then fed into a data base, which is connected to National Crime Information Center, a data base law enforcement uses when entering stolen vehicles and missing /wanted persons.

“Basically, what the LPR’s do is, they’re scanning every plate that goes by them and they bounce it off an NCIC hotlist,” said Major Paul Saunders, chief of staff for the Dayton Police Department. “If there’s a hit, it sends out an alert to anybody that has the app that says ‘We got a hit and this is where.’”

The license plate readers, which Saunders called “a pretty nice advancement” to an existing technology, also can be used for homicide investigations, where police know the color, make and model of a suspect’s vehicle and use that data to discover if such a vehicle has passed the LPR, Saunders said.

The devices also can be used to help police track down the vehicles of runaways or senior citizens who go missing.

Use of the devices has previously raised concerns with the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Automatic license plate readers have the potential to create permanent records of virtually everywhere any of us has driven, radically transforming the consequences of leaving home to pursue private life, and opening up many opportunities for abuse,” the ACLU has said. “The tracking of people’s location constitutes a significant invasion of privacy, which can reveal many things about their lives, such as what friends, doctors, protests, political events, or churches a person may visit.

Subscriptions for the readers also are far less expensive than paying as much as $20,000 up front to install a similar device into a police cruiser and then paying for a subscription to services thereafter, a cost that typically means an additional several thousand dollars a year, he said.

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Dayton Police Department, which already uses mobile license plate readers in some patrol vehicles, participated in a pilot program from April until July, placing 27 of 29 license plate readers in the Twin Towers neighborhood because it has “pretty strong” neighborhood and business organizations, Saunders said.

“We reached out to all of them first to let them know this is what we were trialing,” he said.

To determine efficacy of the system, Dayton police culled crime count data from that neighborhood and compared it to data from neighboring Walnut Hills, which he said has similar demographics and is of a similar size.

Dayton police statistics showed a 42.7 percent drop in violent and property crimes in Twin Towers between 2018 and 2020 compared to a 9.9 percent decrease in the same span of time in Walnut Hill.

“We’ve had several anecdotal stories of where investigators loved it and the street crews loved it,” Saunders said.

That included homicide detectives using the device’s hotlist tool to add an Ohio license plate for a suspicious death investigation on July 2. A license plate reader hit on the vehicle at 9:13 p.m. that evening.

The hotlist alert was sent out to officers, who were able to get into the area and observe the vehicle traveling on west Xenia Avenue and conduct a traffic stop on the vehicle. The driver and lone occupant was able to be interviewed by detectives in relation to the investigation and the vehicle was recovered and towed.

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Usage of the device also included when Dayton police responded to a homicide at 416 Bowen St. on May 28 and received little information on the suspect’s vehicles or any suspect information.

“The detectives were able to obtain the suspect’s vehicle and plate using the (license plate reader’s) camera by entering this little information of vehicle color and time,” Saunders said. “The camera system resulted in two homicide arrests.”

DPD’s homicide unit reports that 40 percent of their cases have some type of LPR involvement, Saunders said. Homicide detectives had success with license plate readers earlier this year in picking up suspect vehicles in two cases, he said.

The license plate readers are solar-powered, “which alleviates a lot of issues,” Saunders said. They also are cellular, so data goes to the cloud instead of having to be routed into a local network, he said. Although the devices are affixed to one location, they can be shifted to other locations as crime trends change.

Private communities leasing the cameras to watch their streets and homes can share their data with local law enforcement and vice-versa, Saunders said. Information also can be shared between different law enforcement entities.

Dayton Police Department will make a request for proposals so it can carry out a fair vetting process to assess which vendor it may choose to go with for a contract for the devices, he said.

“We would like to have something rolled out early 2021,” Saunders said.

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Dayton isn’t the only community rolling out the devices. This month, the Miami Twp. Board of Trustees voted to enter into a contract with Flock Safety, an Atlanta-based maker of license-plate reading cameras, to lease eight license plate reader units. The 2-year lease with an option to renew the lease at the end of the two years starts in January and covers the installation, maintenance, and cloud storage of information obtained from the LPR units.

“This technology benefits the Miami Township Police Department and the citizens of Miami Twp. in two ways, according to Miami Twp. Police Chief Charlies Stiegelmeyer.

“First, these LPR’s would serve as an investigative tool that would help officers obtain vital information about vehicles and suspects involved in criminal activity in our jurisdiction,” he said. “Second, these LPR’s would be used as a crime reduction tool to help lower personal and property crimes occurring in our area.”

The units will be strategically located in the major egress points of Miami Twp. and used to help monitor and detect any criminal activity occurring in the area.

The cost of the lease is $2,500 per camera for a total of $20,000 a year, plus a one-time installation cost of $250 per camera for a total of $2,000. Stiegelmeyer asked trustees that the township use money from police asset forfeiture accounts to cover the costs associated with the lease.

Mark Hess, chief of public safety at Five Rivers MetroParks, which is looking into the devices, said one of the largest positive aspects of them is the ability to information share across multiple jurisdictions.

“It’s the speed with which the information travels that’s important,” Hess said. “And plus, the people who are up to no good or committing crimes, they pay no intention to the jurisdictional boundaries, so it’s important that we have the capability of talking to one another or knowing what’s going on in each other’s jurisdiction in order to keep our own areas of responsibility safe.”

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