Despite all the unknowns, in this case, we do have one solid and incontrovertible fact: Flanagan was apprehended very quickly by Virginia State Police. The reason is that he was detected by an Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) system
The on-air shootings of a reporter and cameraman in Virginia last week, carried out by their former co-worker, have naturally left our nation stunned. In the relatively short period of time since this horrific event occurred, we have seen a flood of information pouring out regarding the gunman and his victims. Among this information is a 23-page manifesto that the shooter, a man by the name of Vester Lee Flanagan, apparently faxed to ABC News in New York. The document, filled with a litany of complaints and justification for his actions, raises more questions than it answers.
Despite all the unknowns, in this case, we do have one solid and incontrovertible fact: Flanagan was apprehended very quickly by Virginia State Police. The reason is that he was detected by an Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) system. Roughly five hours after Flanagan had committed his crimes, a diligent state trooper equipped with ALPR identified him, caught him, and thereby ensured he would harm no one else. People have been particularly interested in the role the ALPR technology played in capturing Flanagan, as evidenced by several leading consumer news outlets like Newsweek and Fox News covering the ALPR story.
Why the sudden interest from the public who is often skeptical about ALPR and video surveillance in general? I believe the answer to be that the Virginia incident positively illustrates the benefits of ALPR and how it is a necessity to the cause of public safety, contrary to the many misconceptions about the technology.
Let’s take a look at some of the advantages of ALPR through the context of the Virginia incident.
- Real-Time Response. ALPR allows police to quickly match a plate with information that has been entered in their BOLO or hotlists. In Virginia, when the state trooper entered the details of the wanted vehicle into her license plate reader, the system automatically identified it as a positive hit and that the car had just passed her a few minutes prior. The officer was able to immediately notify dispatch and team up with other state troopers to pursue and capture Flanagan.
- Lead Generation. Whether it is suspected child abductors, petty street criminals, killers with deranged manifestos like Flanagan, or terrorists with bastardized religious views such as ISIS, the common denominator is that the vast majority of them need to drive motor vehicles. This makes detecting their license plates one of the most reliable methods of finding and apprehending them.
- Public Safety Protection. ALPR has always been designed to protect citizens and save lives– not to empower police to track every motorist 24/7 (as many opposing groups claim). The goal of ALPR technology is to take criminals off the streets before they can act again. Today, as a video analytic technology, ALPR is not just an added feature in a security solution. It is an essential tool that law enforcement and security personnel can’t afford not to use.
Although ALPR is overwhelmingly favored by law enforcement and security agencies, it has come under fire by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who have in turn influenced organizations to refrain from using it. The main argument from these groups is that ALPR conducts “Big Brother” surveillance, encroaching on privacy and gathering too much information from civilians. The truth is license plates are public information so there is no expectation of privacy. Additionally, the data that ALPR systems aggregate is protected, which is enforced by audit and retention features. Lastly, law officers only look up a plate if they are given a reason to such as if it has been identified on a hot-list.
If you look at any technology, there are always pros and cons; however, as a civilized society, we must always weigh the good against the bad. In the case of ALPR, the bad is heavily outweighed by the good. I hope that the events in Virginia will help open the public’s eyes to the reality of the situation and that this newfound realization will be reflected in the willingness of our legislators to enable the men and women who protect us to make use of ALPR to its fullest potential.