Orangeburg, S.C. Cops Use New Tool to Track Stolen Cars

By RICHARD WALKER | July 7, 2011

As cars zigged and zagged through the busy Chestnut Street and St. Matthews Road intersection, the unit sounded off: “Yabba Dabba Doo!”

“I got a hit,” the officer said. “Hang on.”

Out of hundreds of cars navigating the intersection, Orangeburg County’s new license plate recognition system picked out one that could have a problem.

Sheriff Leroy Ravenell said the new crime-fighting tool will help law enforcement by tracking down stolen cars or vehicles used in crimes.

“The new tool, I believe, will help Orangeburg County with stolen vehicles, stolen tags,” the sheriff said. “It can also give us information on sex offenders.”

Using two camera units and an on-board computer, the system recognizes license plates day or night. The plate numbers are run through the National Crime Information Center, the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles and any other state or national databases to check for stolen plates or vehicles of interest.

Ravenell said with current connections, the Orangeburg system taps into more than 11 million data entries searching for more than just stolen cars. It can be used in Amber Alerts, kidnappings, missing person cases or in the search for sex offenders violating court orders.

And the cost to taxpayers is a big fat zero. Officers Ophelia and William Ketcherside won the $10,000 NDI Recognition Systems unit in a fishing tournament.

As for the vehicle that set off the system during a recent media demonstration, it was caught about a mile away and stopped. Officials allege the driver had a suspended license and no insurance on the car.

The information gathered by the cameras is stored in a database. Ravenell said that information is only used to search for a stolen car or license plate.

For example, if a vehicle is reported stolen, the license plate of the stolen car is compared to a list of recently photographed tags to look for the possible location.

North Charleston has nearly five years of data using the recognition systems. They put four units – two mobile and two stationary – online about five years ago. One of their cameras averages 396 alerts a month.

“As far as what they (Orangeburg County) can expect, it’s as useful as the officers put it on the road,” North Charleston Sgt. Todd Morgan said. “The more cars that pass it, the more useful it is.”

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said the units in his county have made “patrol efforts more effective and efficient because it allows deputies to check hundreds of vehicles in a short period of time.”

The units in Richland County have worked effectively for the unpaid vehicle tax program, resulting “in the recovery of millions of dollars in delinquent taxes,” Lott said.

“The program helps our citizens during times when County Council is struggling to fund county agencies such as the Sheriff’s Department,” Lott said.

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