Virginia Police Cameras Scan for Stolen Cars and License Plates

June 25, 2007

Virginia State Police are using digital cameras that can scan highways and parking lots for hot cars and stolen license plates.

Using the digital images, police can compare the plates against any database of license plates: those associated with fugitives, stolen cars, plates that have been stolen, and so on.

State police began using the $16,000 readers several months ago around the state. Their models take 25 photos per second, said Carl Fisher, a special agent with the Help Eliminate Auto Theft, or HEAT, a program of the State Police. Officers only have to turn the system on, and if it gets a hit, an alarm sounds. A computer checks the plates against the latest FBI “hot sheet” of stolen autos. The equipment can scan plates day or night.

Hampton police have the readers, but will not discuss their use. Some other departments are testing them.

Police in Richmond police scanned 88,000 vehicles and recovered 30 stolen vehicles and 28 sets of stolen plates during a several weeks long operation, Fisher said. He stopped a man driving a stolen car who turned out to be wanted in two states and had guns and a police officer’s badge in his vehicle.

The readers are only one tool that officials are using to thwart vehicle theft. Thieves have been facing a growing array of security devices make vehicles harder to steal: alarms, kill switches, smart keys, tracking devices.

Virginia’s auto theft rate has dropped 38 percent since 1991, according to a 2005 report by HEAT. Other parts of the United States have also seen declines.

Police in Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Newport News and Hampton, as well as State Police are using “bait cars” as another tactic. Bait cars have hidden cameras and microphones and are left in high-theft areas. When sensors are activated in the car, an alert is sent to the 911 call center. The vehicle is tracked electronically and officers are dispatched. Officers can ask the dispatcher to kill the engine and lock the doors once the vehicle is located.

Many of those nabbed wind up pleading guilty, said Norfolk Detective E.L. Flax.

Officials said consumers can obtain cars with anti-theft gadgets to ward off thieves. But the first line of defense, they said, isn’t very high-tech at all — lock the car, and take the keys.

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