Imagine a world where license plate recognition (LPR) technology and advances in city-wide video surveillance make it possible to spot suspects and criminals so quickly and comprehensively that law enforcement is able to apprehend them virtually at will, with little to no struggle involved. There would be no shots fired, no high-speed chases, or other high-risk activity. 

Let’s take one scenario as an example. LPR cameras mounted at the entrance of a tunnel capture the license plate number of a suspect as his vehicle heads to a major metropolitan area. Another video surveillance camera is focused on the car. Working in tandem, the license plate number is indexed to video footage previously taken of the car, after which an operator confirms it is the one in question. An alarm is immediately sent to law enforcement officials who right away zone in on the vehicle with other strategically placed video surveillance cameras. The cameras track the vehicle as it makes its way through the tunnel.

As the car enters the city and nears an intersection, it is watched by law enforcement officials in various locations, as these are network cameras easily accessed from remote locations. The cameras are also part of a municipal network that connects various departments, including the traffic department responsible for the computerized network of stoplights throughout the city. As the car gets closer to the intersection, an official from central command turns the light from green to red. The light continues to stay red, which quickly creates gridlock in the already crowded urban area. This gives various undercover officers time to approach the vehicle from various angles. Before the suspects are able to realize how it happened, they are surrounded by officers with guns drawn, and have no way out. They are quickly arrested and taken into custody.

Because of these advances in LPR and video surveillance technology, a high-speed chase that could have potentially injured or killed bystanders, other drivers, or the officers and suspects, was avoided and the suspects were apprehended without a struggle.

This is not a farfetched scenario. It’s actually happening right now in various metropolitan centers throughout the world. In what follows, we will explore recent innovations in LPR and video surveillance technology that allow law enforcement divisions to fight crime and ensure public safety much more effectively than could have been imagined just a few short years ago. 

Advances in Video Surveillance Technology

Video surveillance cameras and management systems have come a long way from the early days of CCTV when grainy, analog images and limited functionality was the rule of the day. Digital (IP) technology now offers a host of advantages, including open multi-vendor architectures supporting cameras with clearer picture quality, a variety of flexible network architecture options, including wireless camera connectivity, enhanced scalability and failover and redundancy options. More so, innovative features in advanced video surveillance systems have helped cities attain objectives they never before deemed possible. Essentially, truly advanced systems allow multiple independent systems from numerous organizations to be managed as if they were a single unified system, regardless of geographic boundaries. 

Similarly, developments in video analytics have also added a layer of intelligence that make these cameras and systems much more effective crime fighting tools, so that instead of just viewing scenes, the cameras look for abandoned objects on the roadway, loitering or virtual fencing near critical infrastructures, and can instantly alert law enforcement when a suspicious activity is spotted. These network cameras can typically be easily accessed from laptops, cell phones and other devices, which not only cuts down on the need for traditional surveillance techniques, but also improves overall communication and collaboration within the municipality while sharing infrastructure costs between various departments.

IP video surveillance is definitely more and more the wave of the future, just as digital advances have taken over so much of the rest of the technological landscape. However, for those who wish to maintain all or part of their CCTV systems in place, the good news is that they can do so, and at the same time, benefit from digital advances via encoders to gradually migrate their existing investments to the digital age.

Advances in LPR Technology

Challenges arise when it comes to reading license plates at various speeds and in various environmental conditions (i.e., day, night, rain, fog, etc.). This is a case where not just any CCTV camera and OCR (optical character recognition) technology will do. External infra-red lighting, high shutter speed progressive scan camera, and chromatically corrected lenses are some of the features necessary for the license plate image to be clear, of sufficient quality and well contrasted at any speed or time of day and night for it to be read perfectly by an LPR engine. 

For law enforcement and national security agencies, the good news is that not only is such LPR technology available, but accuracy in capturing license plates is very high. One advanced LPR system in particular can attain more than 93-percent accuracy, or 99 percent when considering OCR equivalents. Along with that, the ability to link video feeds and LPR, and view both in one single unified software interface is a serious step forward that is already benefiting law enforcement officials throughout the world. Being able to index video footage and instantly link it to a license plate number is not just a convenience, but as seen from our previous example with the car full of suspects entering a city, can be essential to pro-active enforcement.

The One-Two Punch for Municipalities: Advanced Video Surveillance and LPR Technology

Most city departments, including police, fire, water, gas and electric, transportation, etc, are more and more tied-in to one another. In the United States, as in many countries, the goal is not just interagency cooperation at the federal level, but the ability for cities to quickly marshal their defenses in the event of an emergency situation, and more importantly to use modern technology advances to try to be more pro-active in addressing public safety. On a more day-to-day level, with cities struggling for sources of revenue because of difficult economic times, it is important that such technology also benefit cities’ financial bottom lines as well. 

All this is possible now because of highly intelligent video surveillance and advanced LPR technology. Dispatch centers can instantly know through video cameras placed on highways and streets whether an ambulance should be sent to an accident scene. Law enforcement officers can observe criminal gang-related or illegal drug-selling activity in a neighborhood and do so undetected by suspects. LPR technology can be used in both fixed applications for surveillance or traffic management or in mobile applications where LPR cameras are mounted on the vehicle to spot wanted criminals, scofflaw vehicles or vehicles without proper parking permits or parked overtime.

In a day and age in which every dollar a city spends is scrutinized more closely, the ability to do more with less is a constant theme. The ability of video surveillance and LPR technologies to work in tandem so that, for example, a license plate is matched to previous video footage of a suspect’s car, reduces the amount of hours that might have been spent on such a task if this level of integration with new technologies did not exist.

For budget-conscious municipalities, the benefits of advanced video surveillance and LPR techniques have also been extended to mass transit. This includes controlling traffic through automated tolling, as well as monitoring traffic density, volume, and flow. Besides cutting down on gridlock, the cameras can also be used to check for speeding violations by calculating a vehicle’s time spent traveling between two points.

The Road Ahead

As the populations of major cities of the world continue to grow, traffic issues typically get worse, not better. Along with such population growth, crime often increases, particularly in times of economic distress. At the same time, governments worldwide – at the federal, state and local levels – are facing even greater budgetary constraints than usual. 

With all this in mind, the need for automation and greater intelligence in reference to security technology should become even more paramount. Fortunately, the innovations that have taken place in city-wide video surveillance and LPR in recent years have not only increased the automation factor, but increased intelligence and functionality. These technologies have now become even greater crime fighting partners for law enforcement, as well as have helped to reduce total cost of ownership for cities. As the technology gets even smarter over time, such benefits can only be expected to increase.