License plate readers catch dozens of crooks, rescue people in need

Readers don't record, just scan

Volusia County has the most license plate readers of any county in Central Florida at 33. Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said that's why deputies are catching so many crooks.

"DNA and license plate readers are the greatest advent in my law enforcement career that I've seen that help us keep our community safe and get the bad guys off the streets," Chitwood said.

The cameras are placed at intersections around cities in Volusia County and unincorporated sections of the county. Chitwood wouldn't say where so criminals can't look out for them.

"This isn't about finding somebody with an expired license plate and expired tag," Chitwood said. "This is about going after the worst of the worst."

The scanned images from the readers are transmitted to the Volusia County Crime Center in Daytona Beach. Computers there instantaneously analyze the plates, several times per second, and cross-reference them with tags of wanted persons that have been uploaded to a database by federal, state, and local law enforcement.

"We've gotten information from the federal government that a suspected person for terrorism or human trafficking is coming into our county, here's his tag number," Chitwood said.

Chitwood said when deputies are searching for someone they need to find -- a violent offender with a warrant, an absconded sex offender, a lost Alzheimer's patient, for example -- they insert that person's license plate information into the database.

In the past year and a half, Chitwood said 67 times the license plate readers identified someone they were searching for and deputies were able to stop the driver.

"There's multiple armed robberies, residential burglaries, wanted suspects, stolen vehicle, frauds, missing persons, car break suspects, shoplifting suspects, I mean the list goes on and on and on," Chitwood said.

Chitwood said he understands privacy concerns but insisted the data is protected. The readers don't run license plates; they only compare tags with a law enforcement database of wanted persons.

"Clearly we don't share the data with anything other than law enforcement, we don't sell it to another vendor, it's purged every 90 days," Chitwood said.

All alerts by the license plate reader system are verified. The readers can only read letters and numbers and cannot distinguish between states so a crime analyst checks every alert.

Chitwood first started using license plate readers 10 years ago when he was chief of police in Daytona Beach. He was searching for a serial killer murdering prostitutes so he installed cameras around the city looking for cars that circled the same area.

"As a residual effect, we started getting stolen cars, suspects wanted in an Ohio murder that alerted us, we're thinking what we started here was to alert us to a serial killer, now we're picking off wanted persons and murder suspects, maybe we need to expand this," Chitwood said.

Chitwood plans to double the number of cameras throughout Volusia County to create a virtual "ring" around the county.

"If the car is stolen, we're going to get you for that," Chitwood said. "And if you commit a rape or a robbery or burglary, we're going to get you for that as well."

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