The Coastal Star

Along the Coast: Towns renew license-plate cameras study

By Rich Pollack

    Advances in technology are helping to breathe new life into plans by local law enforcement agencies to install license-plate recognition cameras along State Road A1A, despite a Florida Department of Transportation ban against placing the cameras on state rights of way.
    Ocean Ridge Police Chief Hal Hutchins and Highland Beach Police Chief Craig Hartmann say both their departments have begun looking into the possibility of placing license-plate recognition cameras on public or private property beyond the state rights of way. The Delray Beach police department is also studying the issue.
    “We believe the technology may have advanced to the point where we no longer need to position equipment on the right of way,” Hutchins said. He is quick to point out there are many variables that could factor into whether the cameras available are a good fit for Ocean Ridge or other coastal communities that may want to install them.
    Both Hutchins and Hartmann, along with representatives of Delray Beach, have spoken to several camera vendors that can scan license plates from farther off the road than those placed closer to the roadway and have plans to speak with several others.
Hartmann said representatives of one company have already visited Highland Beach and demonstrated the effectiveness of their license-plate scanning systems when they are placed beyond the state right of way.
    But it may take a while before license-plate scanners are being used in any of the communities.
    “We’re being very cautious,” Hutchins said. “This isn’t a silver bullet.”
    The concerns, he said, are accuracy and effectiveness.
    “We’re concerned about accuracy based on specific positions,” he said.
    Cameras misreading a tag because of how the cameras are positioned could possibly lead to a significant number of false positive detections, which law enforcement representatives said would be unacceptable.
    The chiefs say it is also important to consider environmental conditions, such as obstacles that could interfere with a camera’s ability to read a tag at night, before making a decision on whether or not to move forward.
    License-plate recognition systems work by scanning tags of passing cars and comparing that information to tag numbers in databases set up by law enforcement agencies. If a tag registered to a stolen vehicle is spotted by the system, for example, an alert is sent to a dispatcher who verifies the information and then notifies officers on patrol.
    Along the coast in southern Palm Beach County, law enforcement agencies had previously formed a task force led by then-Ocean Ridge Police Chief Chris Yannuzzi to explore the possibility of working together to bring license-plate recognition systems to A1A.
    The plan was derailed and put on hold in late 2014 when state DOT officials ruled that the cameras were not permitted on state rights of way.
    License-plate scanners are still being used in other areas in South Florida on roads that are not designated as state highways, and DOT officials have allowed municipalities that had installed cameras prior to the ruling — including Manalapan and Palm Beach — to keep those cameras.
    Hutchins said that as of now, each department is working independently to determine if the new technology would make the cameras useful in their communities. Still, the departments are in communication with one another and sharing information they gather.
    Once research is completed, Hartmann and Hutchins plan to bring their findings to their respective commissions for approval.
    In the interim, the chiefs are continuing to speak with vendors across the nation to see if there is a system that is a good fit for state roads in their communities.
    “This isn’t just a local phenomenon,” Hutchins said. “There are a lot of vendors who have products we could use.”

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