New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy recently announced additional funding for license plate readers in an effort to crack down on vehicle thefts.
The state plans to allocate $10 million to expand the use of automated license plate readers (ALPRs), which employ high-tech cameras to scan thousands of cars’ license plates per minute and allow police to quickly identify and search for a wanted vehicle.
In recent years, owing to the advancement of computing power, ALPRs have become increasingly adopted by law enforcement agencies across the country despite concerns from privacy advocates about increasing and unwanted surveillance.
Law enforcement leaders have touted the technology as an essential part of modern policing in the Garden State.
“The ALPR program is absolutely vital to law enforcement, not only for in-progress crimes like auto theft, but Amber and Silver alerts, for example,” Morris County Prosecutor Robert Carroll told the Daily Record. “These are critically important, time-sensitive activities. They are absolutely necessary to track movement.”
According to the U.S. DOJ, ALPRs helped identify a suspect in the attempted firebombing of a synagogue in Bloomfield. Police have also reported numerous instances of ALPRs helping officers track down suspects in high-speed pursuits.
In addition, Carroll said he has witnessed the technology curtail auto thefts and home invasions in Morris County.
Murphy and Attorney General Matthew Platkin said the $10 million will be taken from COVID federal relief aid and then distributed to local and county governments through a grant program.
The move comes after a troubling rise in auto thefts in the state, which officials say are mostly perpetrated by organized gangs targeting suburban areas. The governor added that police need further support to address these crimes.
“Local police have been working against a rising tide … of auto-related crimes, both break-ins and thefts,” Murphy said. “These incidents understandably have rattled families, and we need to invest in the abilities of local police to more effectively combat these crimes.”
According to police department data, 15,644 vehicles were stolen in 2022, which was 1,000 more than the previous year and nearly 4,000 more than recorded thefts in 2020. The surge in auto thefts has also coincided with an increase in home burglaries by criminals looking for car key fobs.
Platkin said that thanks to ALPRs, auto thefts have begun to lose momentum. According to the DA, the last six months were below the five-year average for vehicle thefts, while 27% fewer vehicles were stolen in February compared to the same time last year.
While the concept of license plate readers has been around for 50 years, the technology has made significant progress in recent years and has grown in popularity. According to a study by the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice, it was estimated two years ago that “tens of thousands” of the devices were operating across the country.
How the technology works is quite simple: Cameras that are mounted permanently on light posts, overpasses and street signs can scan thousands of vehicles passing by on a multilane highway and transmit key information to law enforcement. Police can even deploy portable ALPR units for emergencies and special events, or equip their cruisers with the devices.
Manufacturer Flock Safety said its ALPRs are composed of cameras and customized software, along with Vehicle Fingerprint technology that “lets you search by vehicle make, color, type, license plate, state of the license plate, missing plate, covered plate, paper plate and unique vehicle details like roof racks, bumper stickers and more.”
New Jersey has begun accepting grant applications from agencies to fund the technology, but some have gotten a head start. Local agencies such as the Montville Police Department have already purchased and deployed the devices several years ago to track and arrest thieves, while Chatham Township recently received over $800,000 in federal grant money to construct a fiber-optic network connecting police monitors with their surveillance equipment on the streets.
In Montville, Police Chief Andrew Caggiano said police cruisers have been outfitted with the technology. Police officers can access the system via a computer in their cruiser.
“When it hits on a plate that’s wanted for some reason, it will pop up,” he said.
Chatham’s Mayor Ashley Felice said ALPRs will improve public safety.
“The speed and capacity of the new network will bring enhanced safety and real-time data to aid in investigating, responding to and preventing crime in the region,” Felice said.
In recent years, privacy advocates have spoken out against the rapid growth of ALPRs used for surveillance purposes.
“In light of the wide saturation of license plate readers, it is critical that the use of these devices be accurate, bias-free and protective of established legal values and constitutional rights,” the New York Civil Liberties Union wrote in a 2016 report.
In response to civil rights concerns, New Jersey’s Attorney General’s Office has put guidelines in place to regulate the use of ALPRs. Departments are required to employ an ALPR coordinator, and are restricted to only searching plates connected with stolen vehicle reports, missing persons or Amber and Silver alert cases. Vehicles that are suspected to have been involved in crimes or suspicious activity or have expired registrations can be added to the system’s “be on the lookout” list. The guidelines also require private data stored on the system to be deleted after a three-year period.
“You can’t just go in and look at the data because you want to,” Caggiano said. “There’s a process. We have safeguards in place [to ensure] that the people looking at that data are looking at it for the right reasons.”