Pittsburgh to Adopt License Plate Recognition

The city of Pittsburgh, Pa., will take a portion of the $2.59 million port security grant received from the Department of Homeland Security and install a surveillance camera system in the city's business districts and high-crime neighborhoods by April.

Downtown Pittsburgh is the focus for the initial development of the business district camera systems, and the neighborhoods that will receive cameras are yet to be determined, Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson of the Pittsburgh police said.

The majority of the grant will install cameras with license plate reading capabilities on the tops of six downtown bridges and near the three city tunnels to monitor traffic and criminal activity.

The city has not decided which of the eight downtown bridges will receive cameras, but "the main thorough fairs into that business district," like the Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, Liberty and Fort Pitt bridges will likely have cameras installed, Donaldson said.

Last week, the city council approved Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's request to expand the surveillance project into the city.

The city matched $825,000 of the $2.59 million grant, according to Howard Stern, director and chief information officer of City Information Systems.

This initial amount of $3.4 million is "enough to develop a basic infrastructure to build from," Stern said.

An entire new system does not need to be installed downtown, though, Donaldson said.

Corporations like PPG and the Hilton hotel already have 70 percent of the downtown business district monitored and the police department is trying to receive Motions of Understanding from the corporations to legally tap the cameras on the exteriors of the buildings, according to Donaldson.

The kind of cameras and their capabilities are still mostly unknown because the city is still reviewing requests for proposals from 21 surveillance camera firms, Stern said.

One thing the bridge and tunnel cameras will definitely have is license plate reading technology.

When a suspected vehicle drives over a monitored bridge, the license plate can be read and matched to a plate already on file.

This makes catching the suspect easier and more time-efficient, Donaldson said.

"Cameras strengthen the prosecution and increase the evidence against a defendant," he said. "It reduces our time in court and produces a lot more guilty pleas if there is video evidence."

Ravenstahl's request to install cameras into the city's business districts includes the portion of Oakland not affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh.

"But [Oakland] isn't a primary target because Pitt has a lot of video surveillance," Donaldson said. "They have that area covered."

John Wilds, Pitt's assistant vice chancellor of community and governmental relations, said he's been in the control room of Pitt's camera system.

"The many cameras in the system plus the increased lighting around campus has reduced the number of incidents [in Oakland]," he said -- particularly on the upper campus.

Wilds also said the university could find a way to cooperate with city police if the issue arose for the city to utilize Pitt's cameras.

Pittsburgh is one of 17 cities placed in tier two of a four-tier rating system developed by the Department of Homeland Security to determine the amount of funding port cities received.

Seven high-risk tier one ports like the New York-New Jersey port area and New Orleans received about $186 million from the grant program, according to the Homeland Security website.