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Originally published Sunday, March 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Camera system scans for stolen cars

In the few minutes it takes to drive less than a half-mile from the Kent Police headquarters to the Kent Station parking garage, the three...

Times Southeast Bureau

Automated License Plate Recognition system

Camera systems, mounted on patrol-car roofs, cost about $30,000 each.

An officer manually scans an average of 200 license plates in a 10-hour shift.

The camera system scans an average of 5,200 plates in 10 hours.

Kent Police have used the rooftop system for six weeks.

Police have recovered 25 stolen vehicles because of the camera system.

Source: Kent Police

In the few minutes it takes to drive less than a half-mile from the Kent Police headquarters to the Kent Station parking garage, the three small cameras on top of the police patrol car have scanned more than 350 license plates, checking the numbers against a statewide list of stolen vehicles.

For the most ambitious officer, entering that many plates manually into a dashboard computer could take almost two 10-hour shifts, Kent traffic Sgt. Rafael Padilla said.

Six weeks ago, Kent Police became one of the few agencies in the state to use the camera technology. Since then, the system has checked more than 100,000 plates and led to the recovery of 25 stolen cars.

At this rate, Padilla expects that the camera system on just one patrol car will significantly reduce auto thefts in the city.

The rooftop cameras automatically scan every license plate they can find, checking plate numbers against a statewide list of stolen vehicles. The system saves officers from typing plate numbers into their computer, allowing them to focus on driving and keeping a general lookout.

The cameras operate in all weather; they're equipped with infrared for night driving; and they can take pictures while moving at high speeds.

When the cameras capture a plate number that matches a stolen vehicle, the officer is alerted by a siren noise and a red bar on the computer screen. The cameras snap a picture of the stolen vehicle, and the system's GPS tracking device pinpoints the car's location.

"I watched the demo of what this could do, and I was like, 'We've got to get this,' " Padilla said.

Right now, the cameras only check license plates, but the software program can cross-check four databases. Padilla hopes the department can expand to have the cameras check for felony warrants and Amber Alerts.

At $30,000 apiece, the camera systems are the envy of other law-enforcement agencies. The Washington State Patrol and the King County Sheriff's Office would love to have the cameras, their representatives say, but the technology is too expensive to put on all their patrol cars.

The Seattle Police Department bought several similar camera systems last year, spokeswoman Renee Witt said.

Lauren Vane: 253-234-8604 or lvane@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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