License-Plate Readers Becoming a Fixture in Local Police Arsenals

by: G.W. Schulz

Private manufactures enthuse that it’s like having an extra police officer in every patrol car while saving on personnel costs. Opponents of excessive government intrusion warn it will allow law enforcement to spy on innocent people by tracking their whereabouts.

Automatic license-plate readers enable police to rapidly verify that passing motorists aren’t behind the wheel of a stolen vehicle or don’t have outstanding warrants. Motorola Inc. unveiled a major public safety initiative last month in which company officials envisioned four separate license-plate readers aiming in different directions someday being affixed to the outside of all squad cars. The company for several years now has capitalized on large, post-Sept. 11 investments made by government agencies in new emergency communications systems and other enhanced security equipment.

While plate readers are less visible than public video cameras in the debate over probing surveillance technology, they’re perhaps even more powerfully tempting to law enforcement: Motorola claims the devices can read up to 5,000 plates during an eight-hour shift. Software compares information sucked up by the readers to electronic lists of cars reported stolen and warrants that are outstanding.

Officers would otherwise have to manually check such information and cover just a fraction of the license plates they come into contact with while on the beat. Police in Long Beach, Calif., Motorola says, made 50 arrests, identified nearly 1,000 stolen or lost license plates and seized 275 stolen vehicles in just six months. The readers can also put a quick stop to motorists evading a pesky traffic ticket or four that they’ve allowed to languish without attention for months.

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