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Ellijay, GA
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Ellijay Police to use license plate recognition

Often called an “LPR,” a license plate recognition system uses two cameras and a data processor to provide officers snapshots of plates that are on a “hot list” of wanted and missing persons. (Contributed photo)
Ellijay Police to use license plate recognition system for trial period

by Michael Andrews

For the next 30 days, the Ellijay Police Department will be evaluating — and using — a new piece of technology that assists officers in locating wanted persons.

A license plate recognition (LPR) system was scheduled to be installed on one of the EPD’s patrol cars Wednesday, Sept. 30. The equipment, on loan from vendor Vigilant Solutions, will be used for a trial period to see whether it benefits the department.

“Some people may have concerns that it’s used to track people or store information about the owner of a car,” said Ellijay Police Chief Edward Lacey. “It’s actually less intrusive than the way we do it now (where) we call tags in over the radio. The dispatcher runs them through the computer, then calls the results back over the radio. Anybody with a police scanner can hear the results (whether there’s a violation or not).”

Mounted on the trunk of the patrol car, the unit consists of two cameras and a data processor that sends information to an officer’s laptop computer.

“As vehicles drive by, the cameras recognize a license plate. It automatically digitizes (the plate) from a picture and turns it into letters and numbers,” said Lacey. “It’s not going to feed the officer any data on anybody unless it flags (a plate). It gives an instant hit if it’s a wanted person, stolen car, etc. It gives an audible and visual alert.”

Plates are checked against a “hot list” of wanted persons and people thought to be in danger.

“The hot list is downloaded to the server every day,” said Lacey. “It (includes) wanted persons, missing persons, Levi’s Calls, Amber Alerts and those kinds of things. It also has the possibility of running (plates) through the Georgia Crime Information Center (GCIC) to see if it’s a stolen vehicle or whether the registration and insurance are valid.”

Lacey said LPR systems are becoming more commonplace in north Georgia police departments, some smaller than Ellijay’s.

“One is Fairmount. They will soon have two cars with these on them. They tested one and within a year of using it, they purchased another,” Lacey said. “I know the State Patrol, Hiawassee and Towns County have started using them, as well as some patrol cars in Dawson.”

The units cost almost $17,000, Lacey added.

“We don’t want to purchase one just to have one. If it performs as advertised it will not only increase public safety, but will also save us money in the long run,” Lacey said. “If it isn’t justified, then we aren’t out anything. If it is justified, but just too expensive, we will start looking for grants to offset the expense. The verdict is out until the end of October.”

The upcoming fall festival season will provide a busy trial period for officers to evaluate the device.

“We intentionally picked our busiest 30-day period of the year. Though it’s not a typical 30-day period for us, it will give us a good snapshot of what it would be like in high volume areas,” said Lacey. “We have so many visitors coming in during the fall. We may be visited by not only the good guys, but also by those who may be wanted.”

Lacey said EPD patrol vehicles are already equipped with laptops that are connected to the state’s Crime Information Center through mobile WI-FI hotspots.

“Every officer at EPD is certified to query the GCIC. To my knowledge, we are the only agency our size, and possibly the only one in north Georgia, that has 100 percent connectivity to GCIC in this way,” he added.

“Officers can run tags, driver’s licenses, driver histories and access our local police records from their vehicles,” Lacey continued. “This helps free up our dispatchers and 911 call takers to handle emergency situations. Our citations are totally electronic and officers can complete their reports in their cars without coming back to the station, which helps to keep (them) out in the field.”

The same kind of LPR technology was in the news recently when Virginia State Police used a scanning device to locate the vehicle driven by murder suspect Vester Flanagan. The fleeing gunman killed Roanoke news reporters Alison Parker and Adam Ward while wounding a third victim earlier the same day.

“We’ve got a limited amount of resources, so we try to maximize our capabilities with the minimum amount of expense. This is something we want to test to see if it lives up to its reputation,” Lacey said.
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