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License Plate Recognition Technology: A New Way to Fight Crime

Author: Tom Joyce

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2017-08-11
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Use Data Analytics To Take Down Gangs, Guns And Drugs

Suspected gang members are searched and questioned by LAPD officers. Photo: Ron Eggers (9-1-1 Magazine, Aug/Sep/Oct 2009)


These days, law enforcement officials are less worried about broken windows perpetuating small delinquencies and more concerned with detecting and preventing the serious crimes associated with gangs and drug runners – but they face an uphill battle.

The most recent report from the FBI, released in late 2016, showed a 3.9 percent increase from 2014 to 2015 in the estimated number of violent crimes. According to the report, in 2015, there were an estimated 1,197,704 violent crimes committed around the nation, including 15,696 murders. Firearms were used in 71.5 percent of murders, as well as in 40.8 percent of robberies and 24.2 percent of aggravated assaults.

In fact, a number of U.S. cities have gun homicide rates in line with the most deadly nations in the world. New York’s gun murder rate has declined to just four per 100,000, but is still higher than Argentina, while Newark’s gun homicide rate (25.4 gun murders per 100,000 people) is in line with that of Colombia (27.1 gun murders per 100,000 people).

The vast majority of these serious crimes are not isolated incidents committed by individual actors who are otherwise upstanding citizens – they’re perpetrated by career criminals. Studies suggest that the estimated 1.15 million gang members in the approximately 24,250 gangs across the United States are to blame for many violent and drug-related crimes. 

As one example, respondents in the National Youth Gang Survey sample reported almost 2,000 gang homicides annually from 2007 to 2012 – which, when coupled with FBI estimates for the same time period, suggest that gang-related homicides typically accounted for around 13 percent of all homicides annually. In a typical year in the so-called “gang capitals” of Chicago and Los Angeles, around half of all homicides are gang-related, and 63 percent of gangs across the country are involved in drug trafficking.

What this means is that law enforcement officials need every available assist possible to drive down violent crime and drug trafficking in communities by getting the most egregious offenders off the street and behind bars, preventing them from committing future crimes.

One tool law enforcement agencies are turning to for this purpose is License Plate Recognition (LPR), which uses fixed and mobile cameras to take photos of license plates, capturing date, time and GPS coordinates of where the photo was taken. Each plate image captured, along with the data for that image (date, time, location) is stored in a database that authorized law enforcement personnel can search.

LPR as a standalone technology is useful for capturing plates of wanted criminals or persons of interest if they randomly drive by a camera – even a chance encounter can end up closing a case, because the LPR cameras equate extra eyes on the street. However, the smartest way to use LPR is by pairing its data with analytics to create more leads.

Police in Jacksonville (FL) investigate a gathering of youths suspected to have gang affiliations.  With some 800,000 gang members on the street nationwide, departments are aggressively addressing their gang problems with special units and heightened awareness. Photo: Christy Whitehead (9-1-1 Magazine, Nov/Dec 2009)


Closing the Loop

After a crime has been committed and investigators are trying to locate the offender, there are three critical components needed: a person of interest, a vehicle, and the time and place of the crime.

  • By using LPR and analytics as the backbone of an investigation, an officer can match known data against historical data and create a lead, using multiple query types to track down suspects by:
  • Locating historical detections on a known vehicle of interest;
  • Identifying vehicles that were in close proximity to multiple crime scenes around the times of the crimes, to assist in identifying serial offenders (e.g., for crimes like gas-station robberies or residential burglaries, where offenders often target multiple similar locations);
  • Identifying vehicles that consistently travel and park in close proximity of identified subject vehicles of interest; or
  • Creating real-time alerts for vehicles of interest.

As a starting point, LPR system queries allow investigating officers to link one piece of data to another and create connections. For example, an officer may only know a vehicle of interest’s plate number, but he or she can search historical data to find where that plate has been detected in the past, whether the vehicle was present at the scene of a crime, or whether there are alibis and/or witnesses associated with the plate. Even a lead that includes a partial plate number can help if there is additional data like a date, location or time of a crime that an officer can compare with the partial plate information.

Or an officer may only know the address where a crime took place; he or she then can  run a geographical query the location with historical LPR detections to determine what, if any, vehicles were at the location during the time a crime occurred, or even recently before or after the crime occurred. It is well known that suspects surveil targets before the crime, sometimes for days, and return after the crime has been committed to evaluate police response. 

Say a bank is robbed and a witness identified the color, make and model of the getaway vehicle. The investigator can run a query on all vehicles that parked near the bank over the past 30 days, and narrow potential matches down to a single vehicle of the right color, make and model.

In a good LPR system that complies with privacy requirements, including the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA) and the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), the investigator’s options in the LPR system end here. The system will only have two of the three triangle points: the vehicle identification information and location it was detected – no personally identifiable information, because LPR data systems compliant with privacy laws currently do not contain this information. The investigator must then go to a second, highly regulated system, protected under GLBA and DPPA, that requires a permissible purpose to access the name of the person to whom a vehicle is registered. It is important for an agency to have stringent best practices and defined policies around the running of any queries, as well as use a system with audit trail capabilities, to ensure compliance with privacy laws and allow oversight. This will protect the agency as well as the privacy rights of individuals.

Dispatcher Dianna Moroyoqui works out of the SAPD's Dispach Center in the department’s headquarters.  The dispatcher is in a unique position to recognize the correlation of seemingly disparate events and bring them to the attention of gang units who can intervene appropriately, although few departments seem to take advantage of the dispatcher’s skills when it comes to gang intervention. Photo: Ron Eggers (9-1-1 Magazine, Aug/Sep/Oct 2009)


The Dispatchers’ Role

When it comes to real-time vehicle location, law enforcement dispatchers can play an important role. An agency can use a software client that allows dispatchers to receive alerts from fixed camera deployments that are consistent with the types of alerts (e.g., stolen vehicles, felony warrants, missing persons, etc.) that patrol officers receive through the mobile LPR deployment in their vehicles.

When a dispatcher receives an alert, he or she can send out a dispatch to patrol units, telling them to be on the lookout for a vehicle, and include the vehicle’s description, license plate number, location, direction headed and the reason for the alert. With multiple patrol units on the hunt for the vehicle of interest within minutes of the time the LPR camera flagged it, the vehicle has a much greater chance of being found. 

Dispatchers also can use LPR search tools in real time to get location information and vehicle descriptions for cars with license plate numbers listed in calls for service. The dispatcher then can relay that information to mobile units via radio transmission and computer-aided dispatch (CAD) messages.

Using LPR data in conjunction with other data from other law enforcement investigatory systems, as well as in real-time alerts, an investigator can determine the registered driver more quickly and close the loop – and that means getting more criminals off the streets. Early identifications lead to early apprehensions, which lead to crimes not committed, and in some cases, lives saved.


Case in Point: Maryland State Police

In 2014, the Maryland State Police located and apprehended four individuals trafficking large volumes of cocaine and marijuana between the Southwest and various locations on the East Coast.

One of the suspects had been working with three co-conspirators to distribute multi-thousand-pound quantities of drugs, including cocaine and marijuana. When the suspect relocated to the Southwest in 2012, he worked with his conspirators to package and ship large quantities of drugs to various cities on the East Coast, creating a massive network of drug trafficking stretching halfway across the country.

Using LPR detections, historical data and data analytics to supplement other investigative findings, the Maryland State Police collected enough information to obtain search warrants, which resulted in the discovery of large sums of cash and cash bank deposits, and almost half a million dollars in jewelry, firearms, and assorted body armor, as well as various quantities of marijuana and cocaine

All four individuals were arrested, pled guilty, and received prison sentences ranging from 10 to 14 years on charges related to drug possession and distribution as well as money laundering.

In California, Santa Ana PD Gang Detail officers locate a parolee at the corner market.  Aggressive attention to gang members and gang activity keeps the police anti-gang presence visible and proactive. Photo: Ron Eggers (9-1-1 Magazine, Aug/Sep/Oct 2009)


A New Solution to an Old Problem

Most violent crimes don’t occur in a vacuum; they are often tied to gang activity and/or committed by career criminals. According to my former boss, Louis Anemone, New York Police Chief of Department (Ret.), and one of the best law enforcement leaders I’ve ever had the honor of working under, “If you haven’t established a motive for a crime, assume its gang- or drug-related until proven otherwise.”

The more data and analytics a law enforcement agency has access to, the more vehicles, persons of interest and locations it can identify, and the more connections it can make between separate crimes to identify more leads.

With a boost from LPR data and analytics, law enforcement agencies are better equipped to dismantle drug trafficking organizations and gangs through organizational takedowns in short-term conspiracy cases. Once known gang members are identified, agencies can pick apart gangs person by person and sends those culpable to prison, removing them from the street – and reducing crime and further victimizations.


Tom Joyce is a retired member of the NYPD in the rank of Lieutenant Commander of Detectives and Vice President at Vigilant Solutions. He can be reached at

Related Stories: Read our three-part 2009 on Gang Violence:

The Gang Problem: Difficult to Define and Even More Difficult to Solve (Part 1 of 3) by Ron Eggers

The Gang Problem: Street Gangs on the East Coast (Part 2 of 3) by John Christopher Fine

The Gang Problem: Gang Migration - Midwest (Part 3 of 3) by Mikael Carlsson



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