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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

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