traffic stop

Tennessee town rolls out license plate recognition system

On July 15, a man shot and killed his ex-girlfriend in the parking lot of her workplace in Springfield, Tenn., earning him a spot on the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s Most Wanted list. Two days later, he drove through Mt. Juliet, about an hour away. An automated license plate recognition (LPR) system picked up his vehicle and alerted police officers, who arrested him.

That’s the biggest success story to come out of the Mt. Juliet Police Department’s use of Rekor Systems LPR cameras, but it’s only one of many, Capt. Tyler Chandler said. Since the system went live April 1, it has led to more than 30 interceptions and arrests of suspects in crimes such as car, license plate and trailer thefts and even the recovery of a runaway.

“It’s amazing how stuff that you wouldn’t know would travel through your city … is actually traveling through your city,” Chandler said.

That became apparent during the test that the police department ran from October 2019 to April, when a man who shot at his estranged wife in a city 45 minutes away drove by a test camera. “He happened to be driving through our city to go to a Walmart, and our test camera picked him up, and we were able to intercept him and take that armed and dangerous wanted person into custody,” Chandler said.

The cameras use machine learning to look for license plates on hotlists -- lists of plate numbers associated with active law enforcement investigations. Mt. Juliet police officers log into a web-based portal through their in-car computer that shows a map of the city with red dots indicating camera sites. When a hot car passes one, an alarm sounds, and an image pops up on the computer screen showing a close-up of the tag and the backend of the vehicle. Officers can also see why the car has been put on a hotlist.

Dispatchers at the 911 call center also get the alert and verify the information with the National Crime Information Center database to ensure it’s accurate. They tell officers whether to proceed, officers run a tag check when they find the vehicle and dispatchers verify the plate again. Next, officers and supervisors devise a plan for stopping the vehicle and arresting the suspect.

“Plans allow for less use of force, less dangerous pursuits,” Chandler said.

Besides LPR, Rekor offers forensic video tools that can recognize vehicle make, model and color, enabling users to review and search through video that the cameras collect. For example, in Mt. Juliet, someone called 911 after being assaulted and kicked out of a white work van by the driver. Responding officers gave dispatchers a description of the vehicle. They checked for camera footage from that area, typed in “white van” and found a couple within that time frame. The dispatchers cross-referenced the tag and entered it into the city’s own hotlist on the system. When the driver passed another camera, officers arrested him within 20 minutes.

Rekor’s software-based technology can be uploaded into an existing camera without changing its functionality, and the forensic tools can also be used by other city departments, such as traffic enforcement and transportation. Each departmental use case gets its own dashboard and user interface from the same video feed and camera.

“You get all of these multiple uses out of a single camera without creating clutter“ because the system can replicate the video stream in real time, Rekor CEO Robert Berman said.

Initially, city residents were uncomfortable with the idea of being watched, he said. So the department launched a public education initiative to ensure the community understood “it’s simply there to detect a plate that is listed on a hotlist.” The department posts about the technology’s success in helping to recover stolen vehicles and apprehend suspects on its website and social media accounts to increase buy-in from residents.

Some in the community worried that criminals would simply remove the license plate from their vehicles to avoid being caught, but Chandler said they more often swap tags. “Then they are just adding a stolen plate to a stolen car so we still get an alert,” he added. “We’re hoping Rekor comes up with a solution that will alert our officers when a vehicle is tagless…. If we can get an alert on a tagless vehicle, that would be helpful.”

Homeowners’ associations within the city want to partner with the police department on installing cameras, Chandler said. The project has been on hold because of the coronavirus, but it has potential because sometimes officers struggle to find where a hot car went after entering the city, he added.

Mt. Juliet dubbed its system of 37 cameras -- with two more coming online soon -- at all city entry and exit points “Guardian Shield,” Chandler said, “because it guards our community and shields it from crime.”

“They created a gated community out of Mt. Juliet without gates,” Berman said.

Editor's note: This article was changed July 24 to correct the name of the Mt. Juliet Police Department source. It is Capt. Tyler Chandler, not Chief James Hambrick. We regret the error.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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