Crime fighting car computers: License plate readers help catch killers, stolen cars

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KING COUNTY — License plate readers used by law enforcement made headlines recently after a trooper tracked down a gunman who murdered a Virginia reporter and photographer live on air.

It was the trooper’s first time using the technology when she got an alert the killer had just passed her on the highway.

The Washington State Patrol showed me other ways the plate readers help fight crime, as I sat shotgun on a hunt for stolen cars.

“It reads license plates on the move,” says WSP Lt. Keith Huntley. “The automated license plate reader, or A.L.P.R. is one of the tools we use for auto theft and auto theft recoveries.”

An undercover trooper took us for a ride to show how the technology works. “In the first couple of years, we had a detective that favored this and he would get 20 a month,” he explains.

It’s not unusual for members of the King County Regional Auto Theft Unit to cycle through four to five thousand plates a day searching for stolen vehicles. The undercover explains, “You want to drive through areas that have a large concentration of cars; parking lots, malls, apartment complexes, businesses, known areas where people are dumping stolen vehicles.”

And once a vehicle shows up on the hot list, this unit jumps into action. “We got a hit right there. See that’s what happens when you get a stolen hit. This will pop up and says ‘hot list,’” the undercover points out. First comes confirmation of the license plate number and then communications is called to confirm again that the vehicle is indeed stolen as the car remains under surveillance. “I will park, get eyes on the vehicle, call for backup, one of us will get out and do a walk by, an evaluation of the vehicle,” the undercover explains.

In the ten years this technology has been used by the unit, thousands of stolen vehicles have been recovered.

It’s also used in Amber Alerts and with special guests to our state. “We do sweeps for dignitary protection details. If the President or Vice President or dignitaries from other countries comes to Seattle, we can scan the ramps and the freeways, checking for stolen vehicles or vehicles that are on a list that’s provided to us.”

All of the plate numbers gathered by the A.L.P.R. are wiped from the system every 48 hours like clockwork. It keeps the system clean and ready for the next hunt.

Our undercover trooper adds, “We like the system. It’s not the end all, beat all, but it is another tool in our toolbox.”

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