Officer Erin Kabler demonstrated the Johnstown Police Department’s new automatic license plate reader for only about 10 minutes on Monday afternoon.
But even within that brief time period, the system sent out two alerts.
A pair of vehicles with expired registrations passed City Hall while Kabler was showing some local political figures and members of the business community how the system works. It happened so unexpectedly that the officer once interrupted his own presentation by interjecting, “There’s an alert right there. That car that just went by is expired,” and pointing to a notification on a computer screen.
The automobile passed by a second or two earlier.
A camera atop the police car captured an image of the license plate, sent it to a database and almost instantaneously provided the information to a laptop computer. The reader can provide police officers a variety of information, ranging from mundane notices about expired registrations to warnings about wanted violent criminals.
It can scan more than 1,000 license plates during a shift, according to Kabler, as opposed to the few dozen he might be able to process manually.
“This is maximizing my productivity on the street,” the officer said.
Late last week, the system picked up the plate of an out-of-town driver with a suspended license in a gas station parking lot. Kabler’s ensuing investigation led to the discovery of heroin in the vehicle. It was the first local arrest credited to the ALPR. “That’s a car that I normally would not have even looked at,” Kabler said.
Funding for the $20,000 system was provided by JWF Industries, Concurrent Technologies Corp., Employers Medical Access Partnership, 1st Summit Bank, an anonymous donor through the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, Laurel Holdings and AmeriServ Financial.
“We think this is just the first step,” said Edward Sheehan, CTC’s president and CEO. “We came together to look at what are some things the business community can do to help work with the city and its leadership. Through this effort, we’ve now been able to accomplish this with great results already. We see the possibility and the potential to do other things like this.”
Earlier this year, the ad hoc Johnstown Crime and Violence Commission recommended increased involvement from the business community as a way to address the city’s crime problem, which is directly linked to a growing heroin trade, according to the final report.
“I think the dramatic thing that we learned through the whole process of working with the city is how bad the drug trafficking problem is in this region,” said Bill Polacek, president and CEO of JWF Industries.
“It’s not a city problem or Richland or just Westmont or Conemaugh Township, it’s a regional problem. It’s scary if you see the statistics. This is a big deal. It affects all of us. It affects all of our lives. It affects the future of this region.”
Glenn Wilson, president and CEO at AmeriServ Financial, sees the unit as something that can help improve the entire community.
“It’s part of economic development in a way,” Wilson said. “Because, if you don’t have a safe city, you don’t have people that are either going to want to work here or live here.”
The system can scan any license plate – whether on the vehicle of a criminal or law-abiding citizen – that passes in front of the cameras.
“A license plate is actually the property of the state of Pennsylvania,” said City Manager Kristen Denne.
“It’s on the outside of your car. I don’t feel it’s an infringement on privacy. All of the operators that will be utilizing this particular car, this technology will be specially trained and also will be following procedures and protocol on that.”
Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Dave_Sutor.