BRADENTON -- With the help of a grant and developing technology, Bradenton police officers can now spend more time focusing on patrols and less time checking vehicle tag numbers during their shifts.
The Bradenton Police Department has two new Chevrolet Caprice cars -- one marked and one unmarked -- equipped with L3 Communications License Plate Reader (LPR) software. The systems, costing a total of about $23,000, were paid for through the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Formula Grant (JAG).
"If it wasn't for that JAG grant, we could never afford to do something like this," said David Sullivan, master patrol officer with the traffic unit.
Two cameras, anchored on the front dashboard and back of each car, read vehicle tags, running them through the NCIC/FCIC -- national and state criminal information centers -- and notifying the officer when a violation is detected.
"The back one is infrared; it can see in total darkness," Sullivan said.
With each tag read, the system produces a basic "ding." But when another tone is heard, officers know something has been detected in the system. The officer can then run the tag number through the car's primary dispatch program to check the violation's status.
"Just because this thing hits on a tag doesn't necessarily give the officer a reason to pull the vehicle over," Sullivan said. "You still have to go back and confirm with the MCT program that it is still active."
The LPR software informs officers of expired or stolen tags, suspended drivers' licenses, stolen vehicles and outstanding warrants, among other infractions.
The software is updated every eight to 10 hours with the complete FCIC/NCIC database.
Sullivan said one officer reported that in just five hours, the system read more than 1,200 tags.
"When I first tested the system, I was stopped at a light on Third Avenue. As traffic was driving by it was running tags of people driving over the bridge," he said. "It's a pretty phenomenal system."
Sullivan said the greatest advantage of the software is the ability for officers to focus on patrol during their shifts.
"The best part about this is you can multi-task while that's running in the background," Sullivan said. "Law officers can concentrate at night on looking at businesses. They don't have to worry about running tags."
The LPR system instantaneously reads license plates, even when the officer is driving up to 70 mph. Without the system, officers must manually type them into a delayed system, often while driving.
In addition to the obvious benefit of automatically reading tags, Sullivan said there are several other advantages. "It builds up a database of archives," he said. "It's multifunctional. It's not just running tags to pull people over."
Sullivan said one of the most useful qualities of the system is it provides exact geographical coordinates of each tag when it is read. "For the street crime unit, narcotics, detectives, specialized units -- it's a phenomenal tool for them because they can look to see who's been in a specific area at a certain time and help with their cases."
By utilizing a hot list, vehicles belonging to persons of interest, can be programmed into the system. If one of the LPR-equipped cars reads the a hot-listed tag, an email with a time and location is automatically sent to the officer who listed the vehicle.
Sullivan said if an LPR-equipped car is near a scene about the time a crime is committed, archives could place a suspect vehicle at that location, something he said could be useful with crimes such as recent bank robberies.
The cameras can read Florida and out-of-state tags, smaller motorcycle plates and plates with clear or tinted covers, Sullivan said. Partial tags can also be searched in the database.
Sullivan said in order to leverage the system's benefits, the new cars will be used during at least two of the three patrol shifts or about 20 hours a day.
"The more we have the cars on the road, the better," he said.
Elizabeth Johnson, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. Follow her on Twitter @EJohnsonBHcrime.