On May 3 a crazed gunman shot five victims in a medical facility in Midtown Atlanta. The suspect fled the bloody shooting scene in a known vehicle, whereupon Atlanta police began an intense manhunt. As breaking news of the mass shooting quickly spread, many Georgians reacted– first with horror over the violence in Georgia’s largest city, then with grief for the shooting victims. Soon horror and grief turned to fear of the shooter who was still on the loose in the community.
With the assistance of multiple police departments, the manhunt continued over the next several hours until the suspect was captured in neighboring Cobb County. The news media reported that the successful search was due to multiple metro Atlanta police agencies working in coordination while using modern police communications technology, including license plate reader cameras.
Fears of a crazed gunman on the loose soon turned to curiosity about these cameras.
License plate reader cameras (LPRs) are known locally by the popular brand name; “Flock” cameras. Police departments have been using them for several years, working with the Flock company to refine their effective application for public safety. Throughout the Atlanta shooting manhunt, police used strategically placed stationary Flock cameras focused on traffic lanes to read license tag numbers of passing vehicles, then automatically checking each tag against multiple criminal justice and publicly available databases.
The databases rapidly scanned by the LPRs include BOLO (be on the lookout) files from multiple police agencies, stolen-vehicle files, the state sex offender registry and lists of missing persons, as well as terrorist watch lists and other criminal justice databases. When there is a match between the tag of any passing vehicle and any of the databases, the system immediately transmits the information to the local 911 dispatch center and all patrol cars in the vicinity so they can narrow their searches.
LPR camera technology is amazing, but cameras alone cannot apprehend dangerous suspects. Boots-on-the-ground police officers, guided by sound police policies, are necessary parts of the overall strategy to track and apprehend suspect(s). The officers must follow careful felony stop procedures to stop the vehicles identified by the LPRs and get the occupants safely under control.
Once the occupants of a suspect vehicle have been secured, the officers meticulously verify the LPR messages for accuracy to be sure they have the correct vehicle and suspect(s). They must also follow legal procedures to compile probable cause to take any further actions such as conducting searches, seizing weapons/contraband or arresting suspects. Technology never supplants an officer’s responsibilities or anyone’s constitutional rights.
Notwithstanding accomplishment of their goal of capturing wanted suspects, police departments must meet important preliminary requirements before using LPR technology. First, there must be seamless interagency police cooperation. When suspects drive, they tend to move quickly through one police jurisdiction to another like the Atlanta shooting suspect. Therefore, it is important for police departments to maintain collaborative relationships in advance to set the stage for sharing data and coordinating joint searches in intense situations. Proudly, that kind of collaboration is the standard for the police departments in Cobb County and, as a direct result, it experiences high success rates.
Second, in addition to the human factor, another key to the effectiveness involves strategic placement of fixed LPR cameras. It is a very dynamic process based on changing habits and patterns in the travel routes of the criminal element. Officers need to be predictive, not only in placing and adjusting LPR camera locations, but also in calculating the movement of vehicles based on direction and average travel speed from the location of a camera hit. Smart officers tend to wait near those spots to intercept wanted vehicles.
One final benefit of LPRs is that they are not limited to use by the police. Private organizations and businesses that have venues with vehicular traffic, like subdivision homeowners’ associations, often elect to pay for and install their own LPR cameras. There is, however, one caveat, they must coordinate with their local police. Only the police have online access to most databases LPRs use and therefore only the police can receive and respond to hit information. Nonetheless, the police are happy to oblige since it helps accomplish their mission of serving and protecting as well.
LPRs are amazing crimefighting tools and are most effective in the hands of communities that collaborate to prevent and solve crime.
The author is the former police chief of Savannah and Marietta.