Automatic License Plate Readers in Cobb County

Cobb County Police car

Automatic License Plate Readers have been instrumental in an increasing number of arrests in Cobb County and the City of Marietta, and the technology has gotten more portable and versatile.

The Courier recently sat down in Cool Beans Coffee Roasters on Marietta Square with Sgt. Wayne Delk of the Cobb County Police Department, and Officer Chuck McPhilamy of the Marietta Police Department to talk about the way the cameras are used by their two departments.

They both said they were not endorsing any particular company’s product, and that the departments could change vendors based on price and technology, but that Flock Safety is the company the departments are using at this time.

“As far as Cobb County police, we started using LPR technologies about maybe four years ago,” Sgt. Delk said. “And I think Flock came came onto the scene shortly after we began using a different company.”

Delk said that one of Flock’s selling points is that it’s a local company.

“And they also they offer some advantages that some of the other companies didn’t, which mainly was portability,” he said. “And price point was probably the biggest seller.”

He said portability means that the cameras can be moved to troubled locations as crime patterns change.

He said the way the cameras are set up, not only can the dispatchers access the information, but officers can get access from their patrol cars.

“A lot of our arrests come from the officers actually utilizing the systems themselves rather than waiting for dispatch,” he said.

“This is not the most recent one, but this biggest one we had with a possible murder suspect and armed robbery suspect out of another jurisdiction came in that way. We had one of our officers respond to a Flock hit and actually observe a vehicle and call for additional units,” Delk said.

He said the hit was on a New York tag that police in Philadelphia were looking for in connection with a suspected 10 to 15 armed robberies.

He said Cobb police subsequently heard that the suspect might be wanted for murder as well.

Officer McPhilamy talked about the difference between the older LPR systems, and the ones now in use.

“It doesn’t function the way that you would think in the form of an old school license plate reader,” he said. “Typically, when you think license plate reader, you think what you’ve seen in the movies, and it’s a device out on the interstate.”

“That device was incredibly expensive,” he said.

“It was a permanent fixture. So someone had to get approval from the Department of Transportation to put it on the land, then you had to put a pole of some kind in the ground, then you had to run electricity to it, then someone had to take care of it if a wreck happened and it got damaged, who’s on the hook to replace it,” he said.

He said those earlier fixed systems morphed into the patrol-car mounted versions, but that those still had drawbacks.

“So if you’re just driving down the road, you would have an alert pop up almost like an instant message would. ‘You’ve Got Mail’, right?” McPhilamy said. “So you’re driving down the road and … there was an alert. But where did the alert actually take place? (With) the older technology, you might be a half a mile down the road. That alert is really useless.”

“Flock came along and changed all of that and sped up the delivery of the messaging,” he said.

McPhilamy said that the cameras are placed strategically around the county and the City of Marietta, and if a car passes in front of it, and the owner has warrants, or the tag or car is reported as stolen, every officer in the city or county who is logged in gets the alert, along with a photo of the vehicle.

He said that if the plates were on the wrong car, the photo would alert the officers to that.

In earlier systems the alert would have gone out for the car the plates were registered to, so in the case of a switched tag, officers would be searching for the wrong car.

Officer McPhilamy said that one of the reasons the cameras are so effective in solving and preventing crimes are that criminals now typically steal cars to commit crimes. So a stolen car hit often results in arrests for other crimes.

Sgt. Delk said that the mobility of the cameras is particularly important, because they can be moved to areas where patrol officers are aware of spikes in crime, and since the officers know the local traffic patterns, the cameras can be placed in the best locations and effectively triangulate a vehicle that gets a hit.

Officer McPhilamy brought up a difficult situation involving stolen auto stops by police.

He said that the average person might rent a car once a year, but a business traveler might rent every week.

If a car isn’t turned in on time, rental companies often report the car as stolen. If the car is returned but is not yet off the stolen car list, it is often re-rented immediately because of the sheer volume of turnover rental companies do.

So if a person driving a car that is still reported as stolen passes in front of one o the cameras, the stop made by the officer would be a felony stop.

“If the plate is stolen, or the car is stolen, I now have probable cause to stop that vehicle,” said. “And I’m going to get the driver out. And I’m going to do that in a felony stop standard, where I have the car behind that suspect.”

He said the officer would talk to the driver through the PA and have them walk backwards toward the officer to be cuffed.

“All of that is designed to keep everyone safe,” McPhilamy said. “So even though it sounds awful, if you’re the person trapped in that one rare situation, that is 1/100 of a time where we’re talking about 999 other times that it really is a stolen vehicle with a suspect in the vehicle that needs to be in handcuffs.”

Where does the data on stolen vehicles and warrants come from?

Sgt. Delk said the system gets data from both the NCIC (the National Crime Information Center) and the GCIC (the state’s version of the database).

In it’s Frequently Asked Questions document, Flock states that the NCIC hotlist is updated every 24 hours, and that Flock sends real-time alerts to local law enforcement when a tag in the system is detected.

Opposition to Automatic License Plate Readers

While according to local police departments the ALPR’s have been effective in making arrests and reducing crimes, there is opposition to their use from civil libertarian organizations.

The American Civil Liberties Union has voiced opposition to their increasing deployment, stating that the devices gather information on individuals who are not under investigation.

“License plate readers can serve a legitimate law enforcement purpose when they alert police to the location of a car associated with a criminal investigation,” the ACLU wrote. “But such instances account for a tiny fraction of license plate scans, and too many police departments are storing millions of records about innocent drivers.”