Police in cruisers spot offenders with computerized plate reader

QUEENSBURY The front passenger seat in a Warren County Sheriffs Department squad car was a bit cramped. Shutting the car door, it was obvious that the mounted laptop computer takes precedent over anyone unfortunate enough to sit there. As Officer Terri Jeffords accelerated on state Rte. 9, the laptop displayed, recorded and interpreted an image of the license plate of each vehicle in the squad cars vicinity regardless of orientation or speed. Jeffords was driving one of the two county patrol vehicles equipped with high-resolution license plate reading technology called the STEP camera system. Composed of two roof-mounted cameras, a data processing center in the trunk and associated software loaded on the laptop, STEP is an impressive crime-fighting tool, Jeffords said. The system interprets the plate analogously to how a scanner reads a bar code,said Jeffords, who has been regularly operating STEP since the programs inception in 2006. We detect many more violations this way its far more efficient than the human eye. Jeffords explained that STEP accesses the state Department of Criminal Justice Database of wanted offenders and known unanswered traffic violations. The database is updated daily as a function of the Plate Reader software. STEP is capable of spotting unlicensed, uninsured, unregistered or stolen vehicles. The system also links the license plate information with individual to which it is registered. Thus, another function of the system is the potential detection of wanted individuals, Jeffords said. All known information is available to the officer in real-time, prominently displayed on the laptop. As we were driving, suddenly an alarm began to squawk a loud, high frequency series of beeps. The laptop showed the license plate of a vehicle which passed the squad car traveling in the opposite direction. Although the image clearly showed a complete plate, the digital interpretation only detected four of the numbers. Next to the interpretation was the message Stolen Plate in a large red font. I think this one is a bad read, Jeffords said. Sometimes, if the weather is bad or the cameras are dirty that can happen, she said. Jeffords explained that the success rate of the system is remarkably high. Also, it allows officers to be always observing their surroundings, while simultaneously driving the vehicle. The information gathered is typically deleted after 35 days, Jeffords said. However, in special circumstances, this is not always the case. STEP is constantly gathering information, she said. It gives us the ability to store this information for years if requiredit can then help in developing future leads. Jeffords turned the squad car around and accelerated, scanning the plate of each car encountered in search of the possible offender. Warren County Undersheriff Robert Swan said Thursday that a positive STEP hit on a vehicle constitutes probable cause for a traffic stop regardless who is driving the vehicle. The whole system is very efficient, Swan said, adding that STEP has significantly increased the number of traffic violations the department has apprehended. The STEP system is part of the county Sheriff Departments recent push for technological upgrades, which includes license card scanners and a double redundant communications system. The majority of the upgrades were funded by state and federal grants.

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