While dozens of inoperable crime cameras roil New Orleans, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office has been quietly monitoring a smaller network of neighborhood surveillance cameras for more than a year, with few repair problems.
Now, the Sheriff's Office is moving into a new realm of electronic investigation: license-plate recognition software. It has deployed 76 new cameras that can scan and identify license plates in traffic and quickly alert deputies to stolen vehicles and cars belonging to wanted felons. Commanders say the system is more cost-effective than conventional surveillance cameras and can deliver investigative results within seconds.
"We're very excited about this technology. It's the quickest way to get our hands around an individual with a stolen vehicle," Sheriff Newell Normand said. "It's a fully automated system. It has a lot of flexibility, and it's not as labor intensive as the other types of cameras."
The Sheriff's Office kick-started the new system two weeks ago. BearCom, a Dallas company, won the $626,680 contract to provide the equipment, and the Sheriff's Office paid for it using two federal grants totaling more than $670,000, said Chief Financial Officer Paul Rivera.
The cameras capture still images of vehicles and their licenses plates, then instantaneously check them against a database of vehicles reported stolen. The system can identify a hot car and alert authorities within seconds of scanning the tag.
There are 32 such stationary cameras throughout Jefferson Parish. The Sheriff's Office would not disclose locations but described them as a mix of crime hot spots, affluent neighborhoods, middle-class subdivisions, lower-income neighborhoods, major thoroughfares and routes into and out of the parish.
Another 44 cameras have been mounted, in sets of four, onto 11 patrol cars. Each of these mobile systems lets the patrol deputy scan vehicles passing in traffic on either side of the unit as well as vehicles traveling in the opposite direction, viewable through a rear-mounted camera. A side camera scans parked vehicles, letting deputies troll parking lots.
Stolen-car alerts pop up immediately on the deputy's in-car computer.
Capt. Michael DeSalvo Jr., director of management information systems, said the cameras can scan at speeds up to 80 miles per hour.
The Sheriff's Office now averages 30,000 license-plate scans per day, with about seven to eight hits for stolen vehicles. Deputies are recovering three to four stolen vehicles per week, compared with the same amount per month before the system was implemented, authorities said.
Normand said the technology can do more than help collar a driver for possession of stolen property. Armed robbers and burglars tend to use stolen cars to commit their crimes, Normand said, so the license-plate cameras can help officers quickly track stolen vehicles and apprehend suspects in more serious offenses.
The cameras also can track license plates supplied by victims or witnesses to crimes, said Capt. Emile Larson, deputy commander of narcotics. Suppose a witness jots down the tag number of a car used in a bank robbery. That number can be entered into a database, and the cameras can join the search for the car.
DeSalvo said such lists can be made to track wanted felons, sex offenders or even vehicles connected to Amber Alerts.
"It's limitless," said DeSalvo, who expects the Sheriff's Office to double its number of license-plate recognition cameras by the end of 2009.
So far deputies have done the maintenance on the cameras, but the Sheriff's Office will eventually seek a maintenance contractor, DeSalvo said.
The license-plate cameras are being rolled out about 18 months after the Sheriff's Office quietly began experimenting with conventional crime surveillance cameras.
Normand's predecessor, Harry Lee, began talking publicly about installing neighborhood crime cameras in 2006. He vowed to buy cameras as a way to combat an increase in crime after Hurricane Katrina.