Innovative license-plate reading cameras have given New Castle County Police a more efficient way to find and fight crime.

Innovative license-plate reading cameras have given New Castle County Police a more efficient way to find and fight crime.

Twin cameras mounted on the front and side of 10 police cruisers’ light bars scan license plates and alert officers when certain lawbreakers’ vehicles cross their paths.

It’s a program the police piloted two and a half years ago, purchasing the first $20,000 camera system using asset seizure money from the Attorney General’s office, said Michael Walsh, a retired New Castle County Police Sergeant who runs the program.

Additional search and seizure funds paid for the next camera system eight months later and then a U.S. Department of Justice grant bought the other eight in February and March of this year, he said.

The hi-resolution cameras use the same kind of technology as document scanners, he said, and the software is able to recognize letters and numbers in a basic, license-plate-shaped pattern.

Each cruiser’s cameras are aimed at the general area where car license plates sit, he said, and while they will occasionally read the phone numbers on the backs of trucks, the cameras typically read license plates with 90 percent accuracy.

The software compares those license plates to several databases -- including the National Crime Information Center, Delaware stolen vehicles and vehicles associated with active Delaware warrants – and alerts the officer when it reads a plate that matches, Walsh said.

“The comparison takes place nearly instantaneously,” he said.

A photo of the vehicle and information about its possible criminal status pops up on the cruiser’s computer screen, Walsh said.

The officer still has to confirm that the vehicle is wanted or stolen, he said, but it is much more efficient than traditional methods. The cameras can read and compare 800 to 1,000 tags during a shift, he said.

“You can put two cops in the car, one driving and one running data, and you probably wouldn’t be able to approach 200 in a shift,” he said.

The cameras can help improve safety along with efficiency, said Senior Corporal Trinidad Navarro, the New Castle County Police Public Information Officer.

In a recent incident, an officer driving on Memorial Drive in New Castle was alerted that he had been passed by a stolen car, Navarro said. The officer turned to follow the car and watched it pull into a gas station, he said, and then waited until other police units were in place to make a move.

“There was no chase, there was no person put into jeopardy and, ultimately, the car was returned to its owner,” Navarro said.

It’s the kind of police work that would have been extremely difficult without the license plate cameras, he said, because it is nearly impossible to manually check a license plate while driving a car.

Officers are even using the cameras to identify vehicles with expired registrations, Walsh said, though they are only targeting cars that are at least 30 days past due.

The department is also expanding its use of the cameras for investigative purposes, he said, though he did not go into details for fear of tipping off criminals.

The software doesn’t do a good job providing solid statistics, but Walsh said the number of stolen vehicles recovered has made the camera systems good investments.

However, the department does not have plans to purchase more, he said, unless it received more grant money from the federal government.