Technology in the policing field has revolutionized the way police officers go about their job on a daily bases. It is constantly changing for both the good and the bad, and helps to create a safer and better environment for citizens to live in. Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) is just one of the many technologies that have been discovered, and put into place throughout the policing community. Automatic Number Plate Recognition is means of surveillance that uses optical character recognition on various images and makes reading license plate numbers possible.
They do this through the use of existing closed-circuit television, road enforcement cameras, or ones specifically designed for the task. This technology has been recently put in place through the use of toll collections. When a car drives through the Speed-Pass lane at the tolls, the camera takes a picture of the license plate, and links the bill directly to that drivers account to make the appropriate payment. Although this is a great use of the technology, the policing field has utilized this technology to look for non-law abiding citizens, and do their best to keep them off the streets.
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Not everyone feels great about Automatic Number Plate Recognition, and many are concerned about big brother watching them, and fear of government tracking daily movements, as well as error in the technology including misidentification. Automatic Number Plate Recognition has been around much longer than most can imagine. In 1976 the technology was invented at the Police Scientific Development Branch in the United Kingdom, where it was altered, changed, and put into the industry in 1979.
The technology was controversial at the time of its release overseas, however it proved to be an accurate and impressive technology, making its first arrest on an individual when it detected a stolen car in 1981. Understanding how a technology can often be a very difficult thing, however very interesting in learning what makes it work. Automatic Number Plate Recognition utilizes optical character recognition of images that have been taken by a camera. The technology can tweaked, and altered to specific states to recognize font, character length, color, and even down to the spacing in between the characters.
Most systems include the use of infrared cameras which allows the cameras to work at anytime during the day and also result in clearer images of license plates. The most recent advance in the realm of Automatic Number Plate Recognition is bringing the technology to mobile units to allow for police officers to scan license plates in less than a second. With a greater understanding of the technology from experience over the years, every aspect of the system has been scaled down including cameras, computers, wiring, and just about every other component that the technology involves.
The advances in the technology do not only directly correlate to size; they also have the benefit of increased durability and performance, and can read license plates while driving at speeds of over a hundred miles per hour. The difficult part of bringing Automatic Number Plate Recognition to mobile units was its efficiency. The technology needed to run off the battery of a cop as well as be able to read license plates of vehicles in oncoming traffic which would result in speeds exceeding a hundred miles per hour.
Through faster processors, and greater battery capabilities, this product has been able to be used efficiently and effectively in mobile policing units. Many departments across the country feared its acceptance amongst new officers, primarily seasoned veterans that had been working in the field for quite some time. According to Lt. Chris Cahal of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, he found that, “Acceptance has been high and we don’t have to send them (officers) to extensive classes to train them. ” He goes on further to say that the systems were, “very user-friendly right from the beginning.
It didn’t require a lot of training and that’s usually key in anything. ” With little training involved is often a good thing in the Criminal Justice field, because with that comes reduced costs associated with training officers as well as officers being comfortable with the technology, and ultimately they will use the product more as they are comfortable with the new technology. This technology, like many other technologies has not been perfected. Although it has made a tremendous impact in the policing community, it still needs attention in order to effectively utilize the technology.
When installing cameras on mobile police units, you must be aware of the specific application of the unit and its most important tasks. For highway patrol forward-facing cameras that have the ability to span multiple lanes at high speeds are needed in order to effectively do their job, whereas city patrol needs shorter ranged cameras with short focal lengths to effectively scan parked cars in parking lots. The cameras must be set up on the side of mobile units, so when they drive through a parking lot or down the side of the street they will be able to pick up on the license plates they pass.
The newer more expensive ANPR systems are much more flexible and can be set up in a number of ways with numerous cameras that can easily be repositioned for their specific application. Another challenge that many states face, including Florida is that license plates are only necessary for the rear of the vehicles, whereas states such as Massachusetts it is necessary to have license plates on both the front as well as the back of the car. For the application of scanning oncoming traffic, a forward facing camera would not work; therefore additional cameras facing backwards would best address the problem.
When pictures are taken it is never a perfect picture. The angle is never spot-on and is often skewed up, down, left, right, or can be altered by various weather including rain, fog, and snow. Algorithms help to correct these alterations. The software is based upon six major algorithms that help to insure that license plates can be scanned both accurately and efficiently. The first of the algorithms is Plate Localization which its job is to find the plate and isolate it in the image that the camera took.
Next is Plate Orientation and Sizing which takes the skew of the image into consideration and adjusts the various dimensions of the picture to meet the required size that the software is based on. In order to get the image to meet certain brightness and contrast requirements, the third algorithm Normalization is used. During this part of the process some systems use edge detection techniques to better show the difference between the letters and the background of the plate, and another technique that is being is median filter which helps to reduce the visual noise within the picture to improve clarity.
The fourth algorithm Character Segmentation breaks down the image of the license plate individually by each character. Optical Character Recognition is the fifth algorithm which simply acknowledges each character within the image, and finally the last algorithm Syntactical/Geometrical Analysis reviews each character and searches for the data. The algorithms help to address many problems associated with the picture clarity and usefulness of the image, however there are many other possible problems that the software must be able to address and resolve in order to have a useful technology.
Depending on the camera(s) installed on the mobile police unit’s image clarity can often be a problem. If low-quality cameras are installed they can result in poor image resolution and image quality. Another problem associated with the camera can be that the license plate is simply just too far away, and the camera cannot get an accurate picture of the characters on the license plate. Motion blur, overexposure, shadows, reflections, poor lighting, poor contrast are all things that can make it difficult for ANPR to do its job of scanning license plates.
Many times it is not even a fault in the camera, and it is often a result of an object obscuring the image. Many times a bumper, tow bar, another car, really the possibilities are endless for reasons as to why the license plate cannot be accurately scanned, and this can often be a problem. The variation from state to state can often result in a difficulty when trying to read the different characters and lengths of license plates. There are many different kinds of plates in different states, most specifically vanity plates that include different characters as well as fonts.
The more expensive and better quality ANPR systems are able to take all of these things into consideration, however it is something that has to be updated and constantly checked because there are new license plates created by each state. One of the most important aspects of an ANPR system is the imaging hardware that takes the actual picture of the license plate. This is an extremely important aspect, because if a good image comes in, good results are produced, however if a poor picture is taken, then it typically results in poor results.
To capture these images cameras that are specifically designed for mobile units are used and these cameras may vary depending on the role of that specific patrol unit. The shutter speed of the camera is very important in getting a good picture. While most mobile units use the ANPR system while driving it is important to keep for limited exposure and get a good quick picture. If the exposure is too long it will result in a poor quality, blurred image. Many people have become aware of license plate scanning and have begun to take actions in hope to skew the results.
License plate covers, sprays, and films are ways some citizens alter their license plate so that ANPR systems will not effectively read the characters the plate contains. Another even simpler, less obvious way is simply smearing dirt or snow on the plate to make it more difficult to get a good read on the plate. In 2003 Texas actually made novelty frames around the license plate illegal. They made it a Class C misdemeanor which was punishable for up to two hundred dollars.
If it could be proved that the driver did it on purpose it could be considered a Class B misdemeanor which was a fine up to two thousand dollars and 180 days in jail. ANPR systems have adapted to these obscuring violations, and when a license plate cannot be accurately read, it flags the officer through the computer screen to see if they accurately identify the characters through visual glance. Since Automatic Number Plate Recognition was not founded in the United States, and was actually founded in the United Kingdom, many people more commonly refer to the technology as Automatic License Plate Reader/Recognition or ALPR.
In the states the policing community has actively used ALPR for to help find stolen vehicles, suspended licenses or no insurance, and even used during “Amber Alerts” to help track down a wanted suspect to help bring an abducted human home. One of the main problems in regards to Automatic License Plate Recognition systems in the United States is that many different states use the same pattern of characters and letters. For example a very common patter is three letters that are then followed by four numbers.
If the plate scans it is up to the patrol officer to double check the information to make sure that the state the plate is from lines up. This is very difficult because there is no restriction where a vehicle can go when in the United States and is able to cross state borders without a problem. The application of ALPR systems in the policing community is highly attractive, and is really just beginning to get adopted by most police organizations across the country. Its ability to process license plate information at unheard of rates makes the police free to do other tasks that may be more important.
Another beauty of these license plate readers is that it can lead to higher revenues for the specific policing unit as well as the town and state. 50% of the tickets written by police officers stay in their organizations, and the remaining 50% go to the state. By utilizing this technology many departments can scan license plates to increase revenues, and not feel bad when they are ticketing these individuals or issuing citations because they are acting against the law by not registering their vehicle.
Linking this type of technology to RMS (Records Management Systems) can be extremely beneficial for police officers on duty especially patrol officers. Although RMS software has speed up the processing speed of running license plates, ALPR can speed the process up much faster to help produce information of the background on the owner of the vehicle and the registration status of the vehicle. An instantaneous linkage would create faster processing speeds, and will ultimately help to save lives.
Saving lives is what policing is all about, and the best way to protect an officer on duty is educating him or her. Education is their best weapon, and being prepared for a specific situation, and knowing who they are dealing with as they approach a vehicle will help them do their job better. Professor Colin Spence of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell is also a Lieutenant at the Chelmsford, Massachusetts Police Department. He believes that this piece of technology will be a great investment for his department, and sees a true payout on the investment.
He knows that there are cars out there with invalid registrations or stolen vehicles that should not be on the road. Having the ability to quickly scan for these vehicles while maintaining traditional roles of a police officer will make the police officer a much more efficient and effective worker to the community. Although Professor Spence did not disclose how much this would cost his department, he did disclose that there were grants available, and he had currently applied for a State level grant for one mobile unit, and was hoping to hear back within the next month or so.
Having to apply for a grant leads me to believe that this was a relatively big purchase for the department at a significant cost. The average cost of an Automatic License Plate Recognition system starts out around $12,000 to equip a mobile police unit. Depending on the application of the vehicle and how many cameras need to be installed, as well as the quality of each camera, some mobile police units may cost upwards to $30,000. The average scanner costs approximately $16,000 which includes frontward facing cameras as well as side cameras.
Obviously the sky is the limit for the pricing on the system, but they are also an added source of revenue through ticketing as well as reducing labor costs of the police officers on the job. As good as the eyes are of the officers, it is often difficult for them to be able to pick out that specific truck. Had they had the Automatic License Plate Reader, all the police cars in the area could have put their scanners on and looked for my specific plate. Unfortunately they did not have this technology, and stopped truck after truck seeing if it was my truck.
It was a very inefficient way of doing things and wasted the time of the officers, as well as limited the chances that the truck would get recovered. A stolen vehicle is much like a murder case. If it is not solved within the first 48 hours often the vehicle is never recovered, and if it is, it is recovered stripped of everything. I truly believe a tool such as Automatic License Plate Readers would really make a difference for stolen vehicles, and the recovery of them. In Arizona there was a specific case where there was a suspect at large associated with a murder that was thought to be fleeing to the Los Angeles Area.
Arizona police forwarded the information of the vehicles information to Los Angeles police, who were able to track down the suspect through the use of License Plate Reader Technology. They located the suspect’s car in a parking lot outside of a local motel, and were able to take the suspect into custody and arrest him. Project Manager Meghann Tracy of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) explains that, “A lot of them (police departments) go in with the idea that ALPR is great for finding stolen vehicles, but they often learn it has many other uses as well.
It’s extremely helpful as an investigative tool. ” This is shown true through the scenario in Los Angeles as they used the technology to locate as suspect at large, as well as many other cases throughout the country. It is not just Police organizations that have benefited from this technology. Many companies have attempted to find a commercial use to be able to mass market the technology. Ironically, a lot of large malls have begun to put the readers in their parking garages and parking lots. The commercial application in this setting is that you pay for the service.
It takes a picture of your license plate, and when you are ready to leave the parking garage, you type your plate number into a machine and it tells you exactly what section your car is parked in, and on what floor, allowing for easy relocation of your vehicle. I do believe that this is a stretch for the technology; however the ignorance of American people may help this specific application of the technology to be a success. A more reasonable application of the technology is used at condo complexes, resorts, and other various gated communities.
It is used as a form of security, and upon entering the property the scanner reads the car’s license plate, and if the plate number is recognized, then the gate lifts up and allows for entrance to the facility. If that specific plate number is not in the database then the car will not be allowed to enter the property. I think this has great commercial application because it has a cost pay out because you do not need to pay a security guard to sit there opening and closing the gate, and frankly it’s a cool technology and people will feel comforted knowing that their property is safe, and no one that doesn’t belong can get in.
Another great application for this technology is for a campus setting. I know personally on both the North and South commuter parking lots at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell become highly congested at the entry gates. If this technology was put into place then it would make it much more efficient for students to get in and park their cars. It is also a nice selling point for new students looking at the university. Showing the innovative nature of the school, and it’s just simply a neat technology. The Automatic License Plate Reader or Automatic Number Plate Recognition is a fantastic technology.
Maybe the technology is not a technology that will revolutionize modern policing, however it is definitely a game changer. Its level of efficiency will free up officers time to do more tasks, and will also provide a new source of revenue by being able to pin point all the non law abiding citizens. It also is a great technology when attempting to locate a stolen vehicle to return it to the real owner. I think this a technology that will continue to be adopted by policing communities and in the years to come will become a standard part of the police car.
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