Saturday, September 26, 2020

License Plate Scanners

Did you know that there is such a thing?  A lot of law enforcement entities use license plate readers both around the city that they are charged with protecting and serving, and also on some police cars.

I’ve seen a bunch of “Dateline” and “48 Hours” episodes in which people who are fleeing have been sited by patrol cars with license plate readers on their vehicles.  The reader simply scans license plates of cars that are driving by.  I would imagine that they are able to read plate in front of them (such as plates of drivers that the patrol car is behind at a light, or cars approaching them from the other side of the road), and also behind them (such as cars that have passed them on the other side of the road, but which didn’t happen to have a front plate…these would be able to read the rear plate receding away from them).

I also know first hand that cities often have fixed license plate scanner cameras placed in locations with high traffic volume to read passing cars in case someone has done something illegal.  I was in South Lake Tahoe renting a cabin for a weekend not long ago.  When we arrived, there was yellow tape blocking the road two houses up from us.  We got out of our SUV and started unpacking it when a detective came up and asked if the house we were at had any camera around its exterior.  I said I wasn’t sure since we were leasing it, but he was welcome to check.

What had happened was that someone was walking on the side of the road.  There are no curbs and sidewalks in this neighborhood, so the person was walking at the edge of the road, which can be expected in these areas.  A motorist hit the walker and badly injured him or her sending them to the hospital.  

Later, we were about to take our dogs to a nearby park when we saw one of the two detectives walking around.  When I drive, I often have a camera rolling facing out of my front windshield.  I told him that I hadn’t thought of this earlier, but maybe depending on what time it was, my camera had gotten a view of a fleeing driver leaving the Lake Tahoe area towards whence we had arrived.  

This was a few hours later when we saw this detective, and he told us that they had identified the car via some license plate readers they have on Lake Tahoe Blvd, and that the suspect had driven out towards Reno (eastward), but he thanked me.  He said that the suspect was in a black Porsche Cayenne SUV, and that they were in the process of searching the highways for them in order to make an arrest.

I mention all of this because I think that this is a good thing.  I think that cities would benefit from having more cameras, both for general surveillance and for reading license plates.  I know that the first thing that a lot of people would say is, “I don’t need big brother watching everything that I do!.”  

I completely disagree with this notion in that when you are in public, you are in public.  People could be taking photos of you from afar, watching you with their own eyes, and could be writing down what you do, such as from a sociological standpoint.  As long as they are not harassing you nor using your actions to commit some crime against you, then there is no difference as to if it was recorded or not. In fact, the City of New York has so many cameras that you can’t make a move in Manhattan without being on camera somewhere and being recorded.  

However, the benefits of surveillance and license plate readers are innumerable in some sense.  If a crime is committed, then it’s easy to go back and retrace the steps that may have been taken to identify someone who decided to do something heinous and then flee.  It is also a deterrent to those who become aware that they can’t just prowl around an area and think that they can slip in and out unnoticed.  

We can see from residential Ring cameras (and like products) that video is not a 100% deterrent.  People wear hoodies, try to bust in doors, and often get away with stealing packages and the like.  But, I think that the combination of video surveillance and license plate readers in cities really move towards tying up any loose ends.  This requires, of course, that people have the correct (or any for that matter) license plates on their vehicles.  

But maybe that could also be the license plate reader’s job as well.  If those cameras and accompanying computer databases detect a car with either a license plate that doesn’t seem to match the vehicle type (feature and shape detection is getting very good in artificial intelligence applications), or of the camera senses no license plate at all, the system could within milliseconds notify all local patrolling units that a car with a license plate mis-match of some sort has been seen in the area, and then they could be on the lookout for such a vehicle.  

Another issue is cost to cities.  To wire up so many cameras and license plate readers is expensive.  But so are unsolved cases taking years of detective work.  If criminals could be caught much faster, then, in the balance, the whole enterprise will probably reduce its own cost pretty quickly.  

"Dateline" and "48 Hours" have been on for twenty-eight and thirty-one seasons, respectively.  And, just like "I Love Lucy," syndicated episodes of "Forensic Files" will never go off the air.  I hear Peter Thomas' voice every time I get onto my tall ladder to change my home's A/C filters.  "And, unfortunatly, Fred was not watching carefully, took a misstep, and lost his life that day.  No one was around to hear the fall."  

Imagine how many of those unsolved, or decades-to-solve episodes would not have been because suspects had been found within hours of the crimes they committed had there been a lot more surveillance and license plate scanners around.  You'd be down to episodes about perpetrators on foot, and crimes committed in very rural communities where these technologies weren't yet as widespread. 

I think that one’s assumption that one has privacy pretty much ends when you leave your house.  If one wants to be “alone,” then go on a hike in the mountains or enjoy the desert.  But when you are in a city, urban or residential, these days with all of the gang and criminal activity, it’s probably a better thing that not to have surveillance and license plate readers.