A lot on your license plate

As Of­ficers Den­ise Mc­Carthy and George Sch­weizer patrol the North­east’s 2nd Po­lice Dis­trict, equip­ment moun­ted on the roof of their car is look­ing for stolen vehicles.

And it’s find­ing them.

There are three scan­ners on top of Car 235. Two are moun­ted on the front of the car’s roof; one on the back. Those scan­ners con­tinu­ously take pho­tos of cars and read li­cense plates, Sch­weizer said. The im­ages and plate num­bers are fed in­to the car’s on­board com­puter ter­min­al, which, in turn, re­lays them to the Po­lice De­part­ment’s Real Time Com­puter Cen­ter.

At the cen­ter, loc­ated in Po­lice Headquar­ters in Cen­ter City, the num­bers are com­pared to those on com­puter data­bases of stolen vehicles. And all of this is be­ing done  faster than you’ve read the first few sen­tences of this story.

If 235 is driv­en past a line of five cars, and the first is stolen, Sch­weizer and Mc­Carthy will get an alert be­fore they pass the fifth car, Sch­weizer said.

“It ac­tu­ally will to talk to you” Sch­weizer said while he and Mc­Carthy demon­strated the equip­ment at the 2nd dis­trict headquar­ters at Har­bison Av­en­ue and Levick Street on April 20.

A red bor­der will ap­pear on the car’s com­puter screen around a photo of the vehicle, a photo of its li­cense plate and the com­puter’s in­ter­pret­a­tion of how it read that li­cense plate, Mc­Carthy said.

The scan­ner’s in­ter­pret­a­tion is not per­fect, Mc­Carthy poin­ted out. For ex­ample, the let­ters “O,” “D” and “Q” might be so sim­il­ar that the com­puter’s in­ter­pret­a­tion of what it read might brack­et one or the oth­er as [DOQ] on the com­puter screen in the car. Brack­eted in­form­a­tion tells the of­ficers in the car the scan­ner hasn’t made a sure match, but, still, the im­age of the li­cense plate is avail­able for com­par­is­on on the same screen, she said.

Those im­ages are clear, even at night, Sch­weizer said.

The scan­ners will read any let­ters and num­bers and com­pare those num­bers to the li­censes of vehicles avail­able on na­tion­al and state data­bases.

In fact, the scan­ners will read any­thing that even looks like let­ters or num­bers. It will read a wrought-iron fence,  Mc­Carthy said. The fence will ap­pear on Car 235’s com­puter screen and the readout will be “I I I I I I I I.”  Need­less to say, there is no match.

Mc­Carthy said each of the North­east’s po­lice dis­tricts — 2nd, 7th, 8th and 15th — has a car equipped with the scan­ners.  Sch­weizer said the car has been in use in the 2nd dis­trict since the end of Janu­ary. So far, he said, he’s found about a half-dozen cars.

When the Mo­bile Plate Hunter  900 gets a match, the of­ficers pull over and use the Mo­bile Data Ter­min­al to veri­fy the in­form­a­tion. That ac­com­plished, they call in the in­form­a­tion. A tow truck is dis­patched, the vehicle is put in stor­age and the own­er is then no­ti­fied.

The scan­ner does more than spot stolen vehicles, Sch­weizer said. It can pick up on cars known to be used by fu­git­ives, but he ad­ded that mov­ing vehicles can­not be stopped just be­cause the com­puter gives of­ficers matches. Of­ficers must veri­fy the in­form­a­tion. What they’re get­ting, es­sen­tially, is a heads-up.

The soft­ware tells the of­ficer who the fu­git­ive as­so­ci­ated with the scanned car is and why he or she is wanted. The sys­tem works sim­il­arly for miss­ing per­sons, Mc­Carthy said. Also, the of­ficers will learn if a scanned vehicle is linked to a spe­cif­ic ter­ror­ist watch and they’ll also be giv­en alerts about wheth­er they should not stop cer­tain vehicles.

It adds to an of­ficer’s safety, Sch­weizer said. The ex­tra in­form­a­tion lets an of­ficer know if ex­tra cau­tion is ne­ces­sary.

The soft­ware re­lays  the car’s po­s­i­tion to staff in the Real Time Crime Cen­ter, too. It’s equipped with GPS, Mc­Carthy said.

“They know where we are.”

As the equip­ment scans cars, it beeps. The sound is fairly con­stant, but that’s something of­ficers have got­ten used to.

“Most of the day, I don’t even know it’s there,” Sch­weizer said. ••

Re­port­er John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or jloftus@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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