12175728659?profile=RESIZE_710x12175728293?profile=RESIZE_400xRIGHT: License plate reading cameras are motion activated and take a series of photos that compare plate numbers against those of vehicles listed as suspicious. ABOVE: Police can view results on a desktop computer, in a squad car or even on a phone. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star

RELATED: Along the Coast: All coastal departments use license plate readers

By Rich Pollack

It didn’t take long for Highland Beach police to track down the driver suspected of being involved in a life-threatening hit-and-run pedestrian accident, thanks in large part to the latest technology.

The accident was captured on a nearby video camera belonging to a condominium complex, which assisted police in identifying the car involved. Investigators then used license plate recognition software to capture the tag number of the vehicle, which led them to the driver.

“Within minutes of the accident we were able to identify the suspect vehicle,” said Highland Beach Police Chief Craig Hartmann. “What could have taken a long time to investigate — and maybe never solve — was made easier to conclude thanks to the technology.”

For more than a decade, license plate recognition software has been used by law enforcement agencies patrolling the coastal communities in southern Palm Beach County. Now thanks to the latest state-of-the art technology, a license plate recognition system accessible among Highland Beach, Ocean Ridge and Gulf Stream is more effective in not just solving crime but in stopping it.

In Ocean Ridge, Police Chief Scott McClure said that the number of crimes reported during a one-year period ending in April dropped by 57%. Adding improved license plate recognition software was a major contributing factor to that decline.

The town has been using LPR cameras since 2021.

“These systems help prevent officers from spending hours conducting investigations when they can now spend just minutes deterring a crime in the first place,” said Gulf Stream Police Chief Richard Jones.

Since departments first deployed them in southern Palm Beach County, license plate readers have been used to notify police when a vehicle reported stolen or having been used in other crimes comes into a community.

That in itself helps deter crime, the chiefs say, since people intent on committing crimes often drive stolen vehicles. With license plate recognition software police are able to track the stolen vehicle and either pull it over or determine that it is no longer in the jurisdiction.

LPR also can alert police if vehicles belonging to people who have restraining orders against them enter areas where they are not supposed to be.

“License plate cameras can expand a small police force’s presence into every neighborhood,” said Highland Beach Town Manager Marshall Labadie.

Thanks to a system produced by Atlanta-based Flock Safety, Highland Beach, Ocean Ridge and Gulf Stream now have advanced technology that wasn’t previously available to their small towns. Flock is also being used in Lantana.

With the Flock system, the agencies can share information that they couldn’t before. Highland Beach, for example, can see if a vehicle its officers are looking for was spotted by a Gulf Stream or Ocean Ridge camera.

Flock can also let law enforcement agencies know any time a vehicle that’s been entered into the system is tracked by a Flock system camera anywhere in the country.

“The LPRs have us talking to each other more and sharing information,” said Hartmann, whose agency installed the Flock system in June.

The Flock cameras are more advanced in that they produce clearer images and are solar-powered. Flock also has analytics that were not available to earlier systems.

The Flock system, for example, can track a vehicle based on identifying characteristics. Police officers can enter a description of a vehicle into the system — say a red Ford pickup with tinted windows and a bumper sticker on the back — and the system will alert if and when that vehicle is in the area. From there officers can get a tag number.

Flock can also alert police if a vehicle without a tag or with a temporary tag — characteristics that have been associated with criminal activity — is in their community.

“LPRs help us look for vehicles that come into our jurisdiction for the sole purpose of committing a crime,” Hartmann said.

As with most departments up and down the coast, police cars in Highland Beach, Gulf Stream and Ocean Ridge are all equipped with the ability to see images of tags that the system is programmed to recognize.

In Gulf Stream, police use a combination of proactive policing and technology to prevent crime.

“Every 10 days, we are diverting either a vehicle burglary or an auto theft,” says Jones, who pioneered the use of the Flock system while he was chief in Ocean Ridge before moving to Gulf Stream this year.

On several occasions, he said, officers have identified vehicles using the software combined with recognition of vehicle traits — tinted windows for example — that are often seen on vehicles used to commit crimes.

If it appears a felony has been committed, Gulf Stream officers will follow a vehicle and attempt to pull it over until the vehicle either pulls over or is outside the town’s jurisdiction and it is determined that it is no longer safe to attempt a stop.

That, Jones said, in itself is helping with crime prevention because criminals talk to each other.

“They’re telling their friend ‘they’re going to chase you out of town,’” he said.

Jones said since Gulf Stream installed Flock cameras in May, the system had scanned more than 17,000 tags through the middle of July. There were 351 alerts with somewhere between 8% and 10% of those getting follow-up action from officers.

Privacy safeguards taken

Flock also provides license plate recognition systems to residential communities. Those systems are integrated into local police department systems.

Flock’s vice president of policy and communications, Josh Thomas, says that the company has taken several steps to safeguard privacy.

The information collected is accessible only to law enforcement and the data collected is available on the Flock system for only 30 days.

Unlike most other companies providing license plate recognition software, Flock rents the equipment for an annual fee that can range from $2,500 to $4,000 per device. The system is now in 44 states and more than 3,700 cities.

Thomas says the system is also used to respond to Amber Alerts and has helped with the recovery of more than 130 children nationwide.

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