DALLAS Big Brother or smart policing?
Dallas police say their new license plate reader systems are the latter. The department recently joined a growing number of local agencies that use this crime-fighting technology. It's equipped 14 vehicles with the cameras and deployed 14 fixed readers throughout the city.
'Trying to do things with less officers, we needed some kind of edge to work smarter and more efficiently,' said Maj. Scott Bratcher, who oversees the program. 'In a three month period, we scanned 10 and half million license plates.'
In response to last year's concerns from Dallas City Council members, the department implemented a fairly strict retention policy for the license plate data. It keeps the scanned license plates for 90 days. By comparison, Mesquite and Grand Prairie keep the information for about two years. Richardson maintains the data for three years.
'The only way we'll search a license plate and where it's been in the city is if there's a law enforcement predicate to it,' Bratcher said.
All of the specially equipped cars and fixed license plate readers are assigned to the city's highest crime areas. Equipping the cars cost about $33,000. The fixed cameras cost about $21,000.
Dallas police officers Zach Helm and Jason Paulson are members of the department's Metro Task Force. They've been driving one of the specifically eequipped cars for about six weeks.
'In an eight-hour shift, we might run between 80 to a 100 license plate manually,' Paulson said. 'This will run a 1,000 or more in an eight hour shift probably. It does way more than we could ever do as far as being able to look for people (and) vehicles.'
The system alerts officers on the license plates of stolen cars, people with outstanding warrants, registered sex offenders and stolen license plates. When it does alert on a license plate, it makes a loud submarine-like sound and up pops the picture of a car and license plate.
'The alarm does get your attention,' Helm said.
The system lets the officers know which camera scanned the plate. That makes it easier for the officers to spot the right vehicle.
'What we'll do is we'll look at the plate and make sure it read the plate correctly and we'll verify that it actually has a warrant attached to it or if it's a stolen car make sure that's it's a stolen car,'Paulson said.
The system alerted on a couple of cars as the officers drove through southeast Dallas. The registered owner of one of the vehicles had an outstanding city of Dallas warrant. No one was in the vehicle so the officers moved on.
'If they needed to run it for anything else, it's in the database for 90 days,' Paulson said.
Consider how many plates the system scanned in the five minutes it took the officers to drive from police headquarters in The Cedars neighborhood to get gas at the city's central patrol station on Hall Street, about a two-mile drive.
'In the time we've been in the car, we've run 126 license plates on the front and back versus the 100 that we could run in one night,' Paulson said. 'There's no way I can put a number or a percent on or quantify how much work it does versus how much work we can do.'
The results are already rolling in.
Since Dallas started using the system, police have recovered about 170 stolen vehicles, arrested more than 300 people and issued about 1,000 tickets, police said. One of those nabbed was a murder suspect. Police had found a license plate connected to the murder suspect. The license plate put on the department's 'Hot List.'
'Thirty six hours later, officers in the northwest division doing regular patrol pulled up behind him and the system alerted them that there was a homicide suspect in the car,' Bratcher said. 'We made the arrest without any incident.'
The major cited one case where a suspect in a human trafficking ring was claiming not to be in a certain area at a certain time. The system proved the suspect a liar.
'We were able to search his license plate and find out he was at an offense location exactly on the date that the offense occurred and that enable them to find a human traffic charge against the suspect,' Bratcher said.