Finding stolen cars faster
The technology first came to the Washington region in 2004 as a pilot program. During an early test, members of the Washington Area Vehicle Enforcement Unit recovered eight cars, found 12 stolen license plates and made three arrests in a single shift. Prince George’s police bought several units to help combat the county’s crippling car theft and carjacking problem. It worked.
“We recover cars very quickly now. In previous times that was not the case,” said Prince George’s Capt. Edward Davey, who is in charge of the county’s program. “Before, they’d be dumped on the side of the road somewhere for a while.”
Now Prince George’s has 45 units and is likely to get more soon.
“The more we use them, the more we realize there’s a whole lot more on the investigative end of them,” Davey said. “We are starting to evolve. Investigators are starting to realize how to use them.”
Arlington police cars equipped with the readers regularly drive through the parking garage at the Pentagon City mall looking for stolen cars, checking hundreds of them in a matter of minutes as they cruise up and down the aisles. In Prince William County, where there are 12 mobile readers, the units have been used to locate missing people and recover stolen cars.
Unlike in the District, in most suburban jurisdictions, the units are only attached to police cars on patrol, and there aren’t enough of them to create a comprehensive net.
Virginia State Police have 42 units for the entire state, most of them focused on Northern Virginia, Richmond and the Tidewater area, and as of now have no fixed locations. There is also no central database, so each unit collects information on its own and compares it against a daily download of wanted vehicles from the FBI and the state.
But the state police are looking into fixed locations that could capture as many as 100 times more vehicles, 24 hours a day, with the potential to blanket the interstates.
“Now, we’re not getting everything — we’re fishing,” said Sgt. Robert Alessi, a 23-year veteran who runs the state police’s program. “Fixed cameras will help us use a net instead of one fishing pole with one line in the water waiting to get a nibble.”
Beyond the technology’s ability to track suspects and non-criminals alike, it has expanded beyond police work. Tax collectors in Arlington bought their own units and use the readers to help collect money owed to the county. Chesterfield County, in Virginia, uses a reader it purchased to collect millions of dollars in delinquent car taxes each year, comparing the cars on the road against the tax rolls.
Police across the region say that they are careful with the information and that they are entrusted with many pieces of sensitive information about citizens, including arrest records and Social Security numbers.
“If you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re not driving a stolen car, you’re not committing a crime,” Alessi said, “then you don’t have anything to worry about.”
Graphic: Who has LPR cameras and how long do police hold on to information?
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