Skip to content

Got Your Number

WHEN IT COMES TO AUTO THEFTS, the National Insurance Crime Bureau says California experiences more than any other U.S. state. As part of an effort to reduce the number of these thefts, the Sacramento Police Department (SPD) has partnered with one of the area’s major retail centers to spot stolen vehicles using license-plate-reader technology.

Arden Fair Mall, one of 73 retail facilities owned and operated by the Macerich Company, is located just minutes from downtown Sacramento and includes more than 165 stores. The mall’s security guest services manager, Steve J. Reed, is retired from the city’s police department. Reed, who says he is always looking for ways to “give back” to local law enforcement, envisioned and initiated the partnership with the SPD after Arden Fair Mall received two U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grants totaling $94,000 in 2007.

Reed proposed to the SPD that the mall use some of the grant funds to purchase PlateScan license plate readers from PlateScan, Inc., of Newport Beach, California, to spot stolen cars in the parking lot.

The system works like this: infrared cameras are mounted on the sides of a patrol vehicle’s light bars. The cameras capture images of other vehicles’ license plates and feed the video to a trunk-mounted, ruggedized processor unit loaded with Plate Scan recognition software. The software interprets the images and checks the plates against law enforcement databases. Hits are displayed on a monitor inside the patrol vehicle. Police departments around the country are already using the technology to identify stolen cars as well as vehicle owners with felony warrants, suspect vehicles, and other issues.

Reed proposed installing the system on the mall’s two security patrol vehicles, which operate around the clock, seven days per week. As the patrol cars traveled down the rows of automobiles parked in the mall’s outside lots, PlateScan would search for stolen vehicles using a database that would be wirelessly updated by the SPD.

The police department was interested in the proposal but concerned about the potential loss of confidential information. It took 11 months to work out an agreement with the state and federal agencies, says Reed. “We had to go to sign various documents with the U.S. Department of Justice and the SPD...and I had to develop a protocol based on a posture of observing and reporting.”

It was agreed that the database information and updates would include only the make, model, and license plate number. There would be no proprietary information on the cars’ owners or any outstanding warrant information. Every 30 days, the data collected by the system would be dumped.

The PlateScan system took only one day per car to install and has had no technical issues at all other than user errors, says Reed. The system became operational in January 2009. It has since been used to scan more than 2 million license plates.

Each morning, Arden Fair patrol cars receive a wireless update of the approximately 200,000 plates in the database. Officers drive along the parking lot aisles, and the system scans the vehicle plates on each side. The captured information appears on the dash-mounted screen in real time. When a stolen vehicle’s plates are recognized, an audible alarm sounds, and the license plate number appears in large letters and numbers across the center of the screen. At that point, the patrol officer immediately contacts the mall’s security dispatch office and requests verification by the SPD. Law enforcement officers are sent if the plate is verified as stolen. However, if there is anyone in the vehicle, the officer calls for police through the 911 emergency system, then observes the car from a distance.

At the same time that the stolen plate is being verified and police are being summoned, security begins to go through the recorded video from the mall’s 142 high-definition cameras, looking for the car’s arrival in the lot and trailing the occupants into the mall or off mall property to see if they can provide law enforcement with any additional information. If they are still on the property, the cameras can be used to track them in real time.

To further assist police, says Reed, Arden Fair bought equipment that allows security to download the relevant camera footage to DVD and present that to police for use in prosecuting suspects. Security can also print screen captures of the suspects for police.

Reed reports that the system has led to the discovery of more than 25 stolen cars and the arrest of about 27 suspects. He also says that the system has helped the mall prevent other crimes. In one case, within a stolen vehicle detected by the system were more than two dozen stolen credit cards, multiple altered drivers’ licenses, and pilfered U.S. mail. In another case, a stolen vehicle was being used by an organized retail crime ring. After police apprehended the four occupants who were shoplifting inside the mall, they found that inside the trunk of the stolen car were thousands of dollars of additional stolen goods that had been pilfered from other area stores.

Arden Fair’s security officers can enter their own types of data into the PlateScan system. “We can also put the plates of anybody who is arrested on the property…so that we know if they come back.”

Because the system was paid for by the DOJ grant, the return on investment has been in crimes prevented. “We market our security program,” Reeds says. “By letting people know about it, our auto thefts in the mall’s parking lots have gone down 53 percent.”

(For more information: PlateScan, Inc., phone: 949/851-1600;