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Back to Archives | Back to May 2009 Contents 

Technology Talk

License Plate Readers in San Diego County

By Sergeant Don Shumate, LPR Coordinator, Escondido, California, Police Department

A carjacking takes place in the Los Angeles area, and a notice to “be on the lookout” is sent out to patrol officers. A description of the suspect, vehicle, and license plate number is disseminated via radio broadcasts and computerized databases. License plate reader (LPR)–equipped patrol cars and fixed-camera systems mounted along Southern California’s freeways begin “looking” for the suspect vehicle. If a patrol officer does not spot the suspect vehicle first, the strategically placed fixed, mounted cameras throughout the region most likely will.

Along the Interstate 5 (I-5) freeway, a major artery from the Los Angeles area into San Diego County that terminates at the U.S.-Mexico border, a fixed, mounted camera captures the image of the suspect’s license plate and vehicle as the suspect heads out of the Los Angeles area into San Diego County. An alert sounds in a dispatch center, and a countywide broadcast advises officers of the suspect vehicle’s location along the I-5 freeway. Officers from multiple agencies throughout the county hear the broadcast simultaneously. Patrol officers begin to form a “gauntlet” by watching for the suspect vehicle from numerous on-ramps along the I-5 freeway. Sure enough, the vehicle is spotted, and patrol cars move in, capturing the suspect and recovering the vehicle.

ound like a movie? Events like this one play out with some regularity in San Diego County; local agencies have recovered numerous stolen vehicles and apprehended numerous suspects. This scenario has become so frequent that patrol officers from different agencies often joke with one another about the competition between their agencies to intercept wanted vehicles. As one officer recently commented, “When we hear the broadcast about the LPR hit, it’s a race to get to the freeway to watch for the vehicle—only to find you’ve been beat out by six other cops!”

Success stories such as these have prompted law enforcement agencies in San Diego County to look for ways to acquire additional mobile LPR systems and expand the use of fixed, mounted cameras—especially for roadways and freeways in proximity to the international border. Throughout Southern California, more and more agencies are purchasing LPR systems. Over the next several years, this technology will be increasingly integrated into the law enforcement profession, just as stolen-vehicle recovery systems and radar units have over the years.

LPR systems are currently used for more than just looking for stolen vehicles. This technology is also used for the following purposes:

  • Tracking the movements of gang members, drug traffickers, sexual predators, and other targets of criminal investigations

  • Searching for vehicles involved in homicides, robberies, shootings, and other serious crimes

  • Photographing and documenting the location (geo-tagging) of vehicles for later investigative purposes

  • Identifying and seizing vehicles with outstanding parking citations on file

  • “Geo-fencing,” where fixed cameras are placed to monitor vehicles coming and going from a particular location

  • Supporting homeland security interests

Networking LPR Systems

A relatively new technology for the law enforcement community, LPRs have only recently become available and affordable for law enforcement applications. As such, many agencies acquiring the technology have had the difficult task of starting their systems from scratch. Unlike on the East Coast of the United States, where many agencies have now joined together to network and share their data, the West Coast has only a small number of agencies who have accomplished this integration.

Within the Los Angeles and Long Beach area, a few agencies have collaborated with one another to share their data for investigative purposes. However, this ability does not yet exist in San Diego County. Most agencies possessing LPR systems in Southern California are virtual “islands” of data not yet possessing the ability to network throughout the region. For example, investigators looking to see if a vehicle of interest has passed through a jurisdiction must contact each agency individually to have it research its database for a possible hit. This process can be very time-consuming and cumbersome. Ideally, an investigator could query a shared or central database into which all of the LPR-equipped agencies feed their collected data—similar to a Department of Justice database or a stolen-vehicle database.

There are several obstacles hindering agencies’ ability to network and share data. Some of these include different LPR systems, data storage limitations, and the myriad of differing information technology (IT) systems agencies use. Until these obstacles are addressed, LPR technology will not be able to reach its full potential.

Considerations for Achieving Full Potential

Many agencies purchase LPR systems primarily to help them identify stolen vehicles, but few take the time to consider other technical issues that would allow their $25,000 investments to maximize their usefulness. As anyone who has been involved in the purchasing and integration of an LPR system can attest, the technical issues that come up when trying to start a new system can be overwhelming.

Most people involved in the research and purchase of an LPR system believe that the selection of a vendor is the most challenging part of acquiring the technology for their agencies. Rest assured that the challenges have only just begun! Just as important as the selection of a product are several other, very important considerations to explore.

Perhaps the most important consideration is the vendor’s reputation. There are many companies out there selling LPR technology. There are big differences between them; agencies should do their research and contact other agencies who have used the product for a reference. It is important to make sure the manufacturer of the purchased system can still be reached beyond the warranty period. In addition, agencies should consider if the manufacturer offers technical support for when something goes wrong a year later, or two. What good is a system if it stops working?

Integration into the agency’s current IT system is hugely important. Before selecting a product, agencies should consider if it will integrate with current databases they already use and that of other agencies if the data are to be shared. How will patrol cars (or fixed camera sites) be updated with the most recent information, and how often? Will the product mesh with the current software of the patrol cars’ mobile data systems?

Who is in charge of the LPR program—the IT staff or officers untrained in the technology? Many smaller agencies have sworn officers attempt to manage the operation of the system. However, the system is only as good as its setup. Just as important as how the system has been set up is how it will be maintained. IT personnel are usually best suited for this task, with a trained sworn officer working alongside to troubleshoot late-night issues when they arise. Having fully trained IT staff and sworn staff working together usually works best. A large agency in Southern California recently had its LPR program come to a halt when the officer in charge of the program was transferred, leaving no one who understood the technology to continue on with the program.

Where will the system get its data, and are these sources compatible with the technology? Is the LPR system going to query state, regional, or local databases? Will they all be compatible with the chosen system? Can all sources be searched simultaneously?

To assist agencies in selecting an LPR system, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has conducted comparisons of the more widely used LPR systems. The systems were compared to one another and rated for their performance and other criteria.1

Getting Past “Halfway There”

As is doubtless the case with other agencies across the United States, many agencies in Southern California are “halfway there” in their ability to link together and share data. These agencies are currently exploring methods to “network” their systems together. However, there is still much to do to achieve true integration. In the meantime, officers in San Diego County will wait for their radios to announce an LPR hit on a freeway. Thanks to a shared, countywide radio system, officers from every jurisdiction can monitor a single “command” channel that allows them all to hear an agency announce such a hit as a wanted vehicle while they patrol throughout the region.

LPR technology is just beginning to be realized as a tremendous tool for police agencies. Many believe that this tool will revolutionize police work, as the radar and the police radio did when they were first introduced. Not until agencies are able to share stored data and network with one another successfully will this technology reach its full potential.

For more information, the author can be contacted at


1For more information, readers can visit



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 5, May 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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