ANTIOCH — As Scott Willerford drove a police patrol car down a rain-soaked downtown Antioch street, a faint beep chimed inside the vehicle. Soft but constant, the beep was the sound of the car scanning number plates.
The lieutenant was driving the Antioch Police Department's first squad car outfitted with automatic number plate recognition, a system of cameras mounted atop the vehicle that continually scans nearby number plates, primarily looking for stolen cars.
In about a second, the cameras take a snapshot of a number plate, feed it to a trunk-mounted computer that runs the numbers through a citywide database, and then reports back to an in-car computer screen about the status of the vehicle. If the car is stolen, an alert pops up.
Since the system's implementation in Antioch at the beginning of the year, 21 cars reported stolen have been found. Police could previously hope for no more than a couple of recoveries each month, with methods that relied largely on the public reporting suspicious vehicles or officers running routine number plate checks, Willerford said.
"Before, it was luck of the draw," Willerford said.
In two instances so far, the system detected a stolen vehicle while it was being driven, enabling officers to either stop it immediately or pursue it.
In the past four years, the California Highway Patrol and police in Concord, Pittsburg and Pleasant Hill have put the system into place.
Nearly 220,000 cars were reported stolen in the state in 2007, the latest year for which complete statistics are available, a rate of about 600 cars per 100,000 residents.
Although stolen car number plates in the county have been on a decline in the past few years, eastern Contra Costa hovers above the state theft rate.
Antioch recorded 686 auto thefts in 2008 against a population of about 100,000, a rate 15 percent higher than the rest of the state. That still represents a 27 percent drop Willerford credited partly to a multiagency task force that conducts intermittent sweeps for stolen cars. He said he hopes the new technology will provide a more continuous level of enforcement and help push auto theft figures further down.
Pittsburg police have added three number plate scanners to its squad car fleet since 2007, which Lt. Brian Addington called a deterrent that contributed to a drop in reported vehicle thefts from 696 in 2007 to 598 in 2008. Police have recovered about 60 percent of those totals, some via the scanners.
The cameras scan three ways: two in a forward field of vision, and one dedicated to parked cars. Infrared allows the system to scan in poor light and in downpours. The system, manufactured by Tennessee-based PIPS Technology, is able to read the number plates of an oncoming vehicle traveling as fast as 70 mph.
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