Hi-tech cameras keep watchful eye on Claremont drivers

When zooming through Claremont, drivers seem to hardly notice the extra piece of hardware placed atop traffic lights throughout a series of city intersections, but the device doesn’t fail to notice them.

Thirty-six Automatic License Plate Readers, or ALPR cameras, are busy 24 hours a day collectively capturing an estimated 3600 images of license plates per minute, with the capability of photographing cars driving up to 160 miles per hour. Three additional cameras roam the city attached to police vehicles, and police hope to add more cameras to those ranks in the near future.

Scattered throughout the city, these hi-tech and highly efficient cameras recently caught the attention of a group of curious Claremont residents eager to find out just how close the cameras get. Claremont Lieutenant Mike Ciszek presented some insight at Active Claremont’s monthly board meeting last week.

With cutbacks in Claremont’s police staffing in recent years, Lt. Ciszek says the ALPR system has provided the police department with the extra manpower needed to keep crime out of Claremont.

“It’s just one more tool to help us,” Mr. Ciszek said. “Criminals are getting more advanced technologically, and we have to try and catch up. We are always playing catch-up to stay abreast of what is going on.”

Despite the recent attention, these license plate cameras are not a brand-new piece of technology picking up crime throughout the city. The ALPR technology was introduced to the city of Claremont in January 2011, funded by a series of grants, in an effort to combat vehicle theft and other crime. While many security cameras have received a bad rap for infringement upon a citizen’s privacy, Lt. Ciszek claims that in the case of Claremont’s system, any misgivings spring from a common misconception.

“We have strict policy,” Lt. Ciszek said. “We are not zooming into windows. That would be a violation of the policy and that’s not what [the cameras are] there for.”

Through a PowerPoint presentation, Lt. Ciszek gave attendees a sneak-peek at the images captured by the ALPR. Among the pictures presented were a series of license plate close-ups, each with an accompanying distant image of the plates’ corresponding vehicle captured by the camera.

The same goes for any camera operated through the Claremont Police Department. Pan-tilt cameras found at the Wilderness Park and other public areas—like the skate park, for example—can only capture the general image of what is taking place, according to Lt Ciszek. None have zoom-in capabilities, he continued.

“We are not able to see who the driver of the vehicle is,” Lt. Ciszek said of the ALPR cameras. “They are just honed in at a basic level to read the license plate.”

Despite its lack of zoom, the ALPR has proven its effectiveness in cracking Claremont crime. Since the cameras’ installation in March 2011 through the end of last month, police have received over 43 million vehicle reads. More than 35,000 of those were hits on stolen vehicles and wanted persons. There have been 147 total arrests as a result of information picked up through the ALPR system and more than 73 vehicles worth over $534,000 recovered. Police continue to watch those numbers rise.

The high success rates are partially because information captured by the city’s ALPR system is fed into a county database, according to Lt. Ciszek. Any license plate associated with a wanted person, Amber Alert or stolen vehicle reported within Claremont or across the region is entered into this database. The moment a suspicious plate is captured by the ALPR, information and images are sent to the police dispatch, who are able to verify the information is correct and alert police as to the wanted person’s whereabouts.

In a recent case, a burglar entered a Claremont business in the early morning and made off with stolen property. With a description of the burglar’s red truck and an estimated time of burglary, the police went back through camera footage and were able to find a picture of the vehicle. In the picture, police saw the stolen loot in the back of the truck bed. Now equipped with a license plate number thanks to the ALPR system, police made the arrest and returned the stolen goods.

“We may not be able to identify who the person is [with the video footage], but when we run a license plate with a person that is associated, then we can do more investigation,” Lt. Ciszek said. “It gives us something that we can work with.”

Police can also use the camera system for an All-Points Bulletin or BOLO (Be on the Lookout), used for individuals that Claremont police or other agencies should keep an eye on. Many of these individuals are either previous convicts or prime suspects in an outstanding criminal case. The belief is that these individuals might strike again. The ALPR alerts Claremont police when an individual with a BOLO enters the city. In this way, police can track their whereabouts and hopefully stop crime in the city before it happens.

Councilmember Corey Calaycay, present at the meeting, noted that, with the state’ Public Safety Realignment Bill— transferring up to 30,000 low-level offenders to county jails over the next 3 years—the ALPR system is invaluable.

“There is a lot of concern about people getting out of jail early and this [ALPR] is our opportunity to get some of those that are coming out and causing problems again,” said Mr. Calaycay, adding that the cameras are as much a deterrent as a means of catching criminals. Those who know Claremont has such technology will be less likely to commit crimes within city limits, Mr. Calaycay added.

Lt. Ciszek says the Claremont police hope to continue to manage the challenges of the Realignment Bill and increased burglaries in the city with additional ALPR cameras in the near future.

“This is our opportunity to track some of those [criminals] and take them out of the system,” Lt. Ciszek said.

—Beth Hartnett



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