License plate scanning cameras considered largely successful by law enforcement

AURORA, Colo. - Hidden atop stoplights throughout Aurora, the police department has eight cameras watching every car that passes by. They read every license plate that passes, whether you are a criminal or not.

"In the last two days, we've made three arrests off of, just the stationary plate readers," said Lt. Dan Mark, who oversees the program for the Aurora Police Department.

Eleven other cameras are attached to police cars for the same purpose.

"We average about two to three stolen car recoveries a week directly from the plate scanners," Mark said.

During 2013, the cameras scanned more than 12 million license plates. Approximately 322,000 of those resulted in an alert for reasons like a stolen car or a connection to a wanted suspect.

"That plate would then be stored, not any of the registered owner's information, but just that plate and a photo of the vehicle would then be stored in our database," Mark said. "The photo of the vehicle is kept for 18 months, the actual plate number and the information relating to where the plate was scanned is kept for two years."

7NEWS Investigative Reporter Marshall Zelinger asked who had access to the database.

"We occasionally get requests from repo companies to access our database and we flat out deny those," Mark told Zelinger.

But can someone use the camera network to track an innocent citizen's habits?

"If somebody went in and searched for particular plates, we can do that, we can check and see what they're doing in the system," Mark said.

Zelinger followed up, "Has that been a problem at all?"

"It has not at all," he said.

An auto theft task force made up of six Colorado law enforcement jurisdictions used camera systems to scan 1.9 million vehicles and found a total of 290 stolen cars last year. In total, those vehicles were worth close to $1 million.

"The important thing about these programs are that they get bad guys off the street and that's really what we're going after here," Mark said.

A system of license plate scanners have been attached to Lakewood Police Department vehicles for five years. Zelinger also asked that department if they've encountered any problems with misuse of the database.

"That's prohibited," replied Chief Kevin Paletta. "If it is reported, we would investigate it and disciplinary action would be taken, because it's not to be used for personal gain."

Paletta points to the arrest of serial rapist Marc O'Leary as an example of the success of the camera system. O'Leary's car was photographed in a Lakewood neighborhood near where a rape was later reported and also matched surveillance photos of a vehicle seen at a rape investigation in Golden five months later.

"I don't think you can underestimate the value it had in preventing future sexual assaults," Paletta said.

7NEWS asked Aurora police for a demonstration of their system. We proposed searching the database for one of our vehicles, but Lt. Mark politely refused because the idea is actually against the rules.

"There's no reason for us to search for your vehicle plate unless you've been involved in some type of criminal activity," he said.

He also asked us to not reveal the location of the stationary cameras, to avoid making it easier for drivers to circumvent the cameras.

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