Cameras record license plates in a snap

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If you've driven past the intersection of South Braddock Avenue and Hutchinson Street during the past two weeks, you've taken part in a surveillance experiment, one that law enforcement hopes will pay off by helping police nab fugitives, stolen cars and other suspect vehicles.

Allegheny County's first fixed cameras equipped with automatic license plate reader technology have been installed at this Regent Square intersection. The devices snap photos of every passing car, "read" their license plates and log them in a searchable database.

The system is also equipped to run every passing plate with national, state and local "hot lists," compilations of cars wanted by authorities because they've been stolen or associated with crimes or missing persons. The federal database, called the National Crime Information Center, also includes license plates associated with suspected terrorists. When one passes, it sends an alert to the Swissvale and Edgewood police departments, which are in charge of the cameras.

"It's unbelievable," said Edgewood police Chief Robert Payne. "It's a giant step forward for us."

Both Chief Payne and Swissvale police Chief Greg Geppert said they're excited at the potential of the system to help them solve crimes and to track suspects immediately after a crime has occurred.

The camera system cost a pretty penny -- about $35,000 for the cameras and server -- and was paid for by the Allegheny County District Attorney's office's asset forfeiture fund. Jason Miller of Surveillance Group, the company installing the cameras, said both cameras are operational and that the departments will have access to the databases by Monday or Tuesday.

The Regent Square camera system is one of many that will be installed in the coming months, with much of the funding for other systems coming from a Department of Homeland Security Port Security Grant Program awarded to the Allegheny County District Attorney's office, according to John Hudson, a consultant who authored the grant application on behalf of the district attorney's office and the city of Pittsburgh.

But with the developments come privacy concerns. The American Civil Liberties Union in Pittsburgh plans to file a right-to-know request with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, inquiring about policies regarding how long LPR data is kept and who is able to access it. City police have at least one camera affixed to a patrol car and used by the bureau's auto squad.

LPR cameras are already installed but not yet transmitting data at a heavily trafficked intersection in The Waterfront in Homestead, at a cost of $95,000. Braddock is also slated to receive several cameras at Fourth Street and Camp Avenue. Their $118,000 camera system, which also includes high-definition cameras, was funded through a Department of Homeland Security grant with the help of Levi's, which put up the matching $30,000.

The borough of Monaca in Beaver County will also install $30,000 worth of infrastructure to support a license plate reader camera system in the next month on that end of the Monaca-Rochester Bridge, also funded through the Port Security Grant Program.

"Our ultimate goal is to secure all our points of egress and ingress," said Mario Leone, Monaca borough manager. It creates "situational awareness," he said, so that if someone with an outstanding warrant enters the community, officers can be alerted and be on the lookout for that person.

'Becomes like a dragnet'

The overarching goal is to link these systems to cast as wide a net as possible for law enforcement looking for criminals, missing persons and stolen cars, said Mr. Hudson.

In the grant application he wrote on behalf of the district attorney's office, a project termed the Ring of Steel was conceptualized, which would install surveillance at key entrance points to the city and surrounding communities. District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. did not return calls for comment.

"If you have a network of these cameras, it kind of becomes like a dragnet," said Allegheny County police Lt. Andrew Schurman, who heads the homicide unit. His department does not have cameras, but he said data collected from the fixed cameras could be useful to his detectives. "That would be ideal."

In Regent Square, the cameras stand sentry at the entrance to the business district. Chief Geppert said the district attorney chose this location after the neighborhood saw seven robberies in a week last year. It's also an ideal location because South Braddock Avenue, though just a two-lane road, is a central artery for traffic between the Mon Valley and Pittsburgh. Thousands of cars traverse the intersection every day.

"It's also a thoroughfare for criminals to use that corridor for drug trafficking and things of that nature," Chief Payne said.

The database in Regent Square will hold up to five months' worth of data. If police develop a suspect vehicle after a crime is committed, they'll be able to search the database to see if the car passed through, potentially narrowing its location. In situations with multiple crimes, police can review photos of all cars that pass the cameras around the times of the crimes to find common vehicles.

Chief Payne said it will also give police a rapid-fire tool to help fill gaps if a witness catches only a partial plate. Previously, they would have to give the fragmented details -- perhaps the first few letters of a license plate, a color, a model -- to the state police, and hope that they could find it through vehicle registration.

Now they can review photos of every car in the intersection themselves. Better yet, when they identify a car, they can pinpoint the precise moment it went past the intersection's other cameras -- a set of high resolution video recorders -- and zoom in on the driver and other occupants of the car.

"In the days when I was in investigations, for us to do that and go to the state to have that done ... would have been very time-consuming," he said. "We have that at our fingers now ... that's pretty good stuff."

Chief Geppert said cameras will also be helpful in situations where time is critical -- like in child abductions -- which are almost always conducted with cars.

How long to keep the images

The cameras could also help fill gaps if witnesses are unwilling to come forward, said Lt. Schurman, and give police leads by tracking vehicles in and around a crime scene.

But Sara Rose of the ACLU in Pittsburgh said she's worried about the notion of tracking the location of law-abiding citizens, though she acknowledges the courts have sided with police when surveillance occurs in public. The organization is particularly concerned with the length of time departments hold onto the data. The more information retained, the greater the potential for abuse, she said, particularly if the system is hacked.

"We see no legitimate law enforcement purpose to retaining data on law-abiding citizens for an indefinite period of time," she said.

Chief Geppert said the notion made him anxious, too, and he posed that question to the vendor who installed the camera. What if an officer suspected a girlfriend was cheating and wanted to check on her whereabouts?

That's why he's giving just supervisors access to the system's search capabilities. He said they will have to fill out a form every time a search is performed to ensure the system is used when police have a compelling reason.

And every search is logged on the system, so he can review all searches made to ensure they were legitimate.

"With periodic checks, that keeps everybody honest," he said.

Braddock Mayor John Fetterman said the benefits of the system far outweigh the privacy concerns. The cameras will monitor an intersection that has been the site of at least two drive-by shootings in the past few years.

"I subscribe to the [Philadelphia Mayor] Michael Nutter philosophy that people have a right to not get shot," he said. "The small chance that it could be used to look up a girlfriend is infinitesimal compared with the public safety and public good."

Correction: (Published September 5, 2012) Surveillance cameras installed at South Braddock and West Hutchinson avenues in Regent Square were paid for by the Allegheny County district attorney's office asset forfeiture fund. A July 28 article misidentified the funding source.

Correction: (Published Sept. 14, 2012) The borough of Monaca in Beaver County was slated to install $30,000 worth of infrastructure on the Monaca-Rochester Bridge to support a license plate reader camera system, paid for by a Port Security Grant. A July 28 article misidentified the equipment the money was paying for.


Moriah Balingit:, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.


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