APD given green light to purchase new license plate readers


Mengwen Cao

APD officer Jermaine Kilgore demonstrates how to use the current license plate database inside a patrol car Tuesday.

Mengwen Cao | Daily Texan staff

Julia Brouillette

The Austin Police Department is in the market for new license plate readers after City Council allocated new funds for investment in the technology, according to APD Sgt. Robert Smith.

APD used its previous plate scanners from 2010 until 2012, when the department’s former vendor went out of business. Smith, who works in the Auto Theft Unit, said the readers are primarily used to locate and recover stolen vehicles.

“It’s a huge asset in finding stolen vehicles because the operators don’t even have to pay attention,” Smith said. “They just drive around, and the cameras and computers do all of the work. When a stolen car is found, it directs the officer to where it’s at, and the vehicle can be recovered.”

License plate readers are devices installed in select patrol cars and in areas of the city where auto theft rates are highest. The reader scans and photographs license plates and then feeds the plate information to a computer inside the patrol car.

“The computer is connected to the license plate database, and that information is just disseminated to a server,” Smith said. “If the plate of a stolen car is detected, it’ll tell you which car it is and where it was when it was found, and that allows any officer that’s working the equipment to find the stolen vehicle and recover it for a victim.”

Smith said the department will only be able to afford a few scanners.

“They’re very expensive units,” Smith said. “We wouldn’t have the funds to put them on all of the patrol cars. What we would do is we would put them in areas where most cars are either stolen or recovered, and then we would put them on probably only one or two cars. They’re not only expensive to buy, but they’re expensive to run.”

According to Genetec, a company with its own license plate recognition system, the devices are capable of reading up to 5,000 plates per minute and capturing license plates at speeds of up to 200 mph.

The scanners detect stolen vehicles based on information in the Texas Crime Information Center, where reported stolen vehicles’ license plate data are stored.

“When someone calls the police department and reports their vehicle stolen, that [license plate] information gets put into what’s called the TCIC database, which is a national crime information center,” Smith said. “The license plate reader taps directly into that, and, if there’s a match, it will tell you where the vehicle is.”

APD has not yet decided on a specific vendor from which to purchase its new readers, according to Smith.

“We just got money for them,” Smith said. “We have to [find] out what we need and find out what’s out there, get vendors to tell us what they have and what they can offer us.”