When U.S. Border Patrol agents stopped a vehicle at the border checkpoint in Douglas, Ariz., it wasn’t a lucky break. They had been on the lookout for the driver’s vehicle and it had been spotted by an automated license plate reader (ALPR). The driver, attempting to escape into Mexico, was arrested on suspicion of murder.
All along U.S. borders, ALPRs changed the face and pace of security and enforcement – although not in ways most people might expect.
While APLRs may occasionally catch individuals with a criminal record trying to come into the United States, they play a much greater role in stopping criminals trying to leave. The systems have driven a dramatic drop in vehicle thefts in U.S. border towns. They’ve also been instrumental in finding missing persons and stopping contraband.
“Recognition technology has become very powerful,” says Mark Prestoy, lead systems engineer in General Dynamics Information Technology’s Video Surveillance Lab. “Capturing an image – whether a license plate or something more complex such as a face can be successful when you have a well-placed sensor, network connection and video analytics. Once you have the image, you can process it to enhance and extract information. License plate recognition is similar to optical character recognition used in a printed document.”
“It’s an enforcement tool,” says Efrain Perez, acting director of field operations and readiness for Customs and Border Protection (CBP). “They help us identify high-risk vehicles.”
The agency has about 500 ALPR systems deployed at 91 locations to process passenger vehicles coming into the United States. It also has ALPRs on all 110 outbound lanes to Mexico, which were added in 2009 after the U.S. committed to trying to interrupt the flow of cash and weapons from the U.S. into Mexico. CBP is slowly adding the devices to outbound lanes on the Canadian border, as well.
For APLRs surveilling inbound traffic, their primary purpose is to eliminate the need for border officers to manually enter license plate numbers, allowing them to maintain a steady gaze on travelers so they can spot suspicious behavior and maintain situational awareness. Outbound traffic trained ALPRs are used to identify high-risk travelers, help track the movement of stolen vehicles and support other U.S. law enforcement agencies through the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System.
Along the southern U.S. border, most ALPRs are fixed units at ports of entry and cover both inbound and outbound vehicles. Along the Canadian border, most APLRs are handheld units. CBP officials hope to install fixed readers at northern ports of entry in the future. “The hand-held readers are not as robust,” points out Rose Marie Davis, acquisition program manager of the Land Border Integration Program (LBIP).
The first generation of readers was deployed around 1997-98 timeframe. Today, LBIP incorporates the technology, experience and lessons learned from that initial effort. Another effort, under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative in 2008 and 2009, extended those lessons learned to all other aspects of inspection processing.
The readers serve three purposes: Information gathered from vehicles transiting checkpoints is checked against a variety of law enforcement databases for outstanding warrants or other alerts. Once through, the readers allow CBP officers who conducted the primary inspection to maintain observation of a vehicle after passage.
CBP operates both fixed and mobile border checkpoints in addition to ports of entry.
But the ALPRs’ facilitation of legitimate travel and processing is one of its most telling and least publicly appreciated roles, Davis noted. “That automation facilitates legitimate travel. On our land borders it’s used to keep up the flow.”
With roughly 100 million privately owned vehicles entering through land borders in fiscal 2016 and 24 million processed at inland Border Patrol checkpoints each year, the ALPRs significantly reduce the need to manually enter license plate information – which takes up to 12 seconds per vehicle – on top of entering numerous other data points and documents, according to Davis.
Those extra seconds add up. CBP says it averages 65.5 seconds to process each vehicle entering the country, or 55 vehicles per lane per hour. That number drops to 46.5 vehicles per lane per hour without ALPR.
“For a 12-lane port like Paso Del Norte in El Paso, Texas, the throughput loss without ALPRs [would be] equivalent to closing two lanes,” CBP said in a statement. The technology is even more critical to CBP’s Trusted Traveler Programs (NEXUS and SENTRI), which allow participants express border-crossing privileges. Those highly efficient lanes now process vehicles in just 36 seconds, so adding 12 seconds processing time to each vehicle would result in a 33 percent decline in throughput.
“At the most congested ports, where wait times exceed 30 minutes daily, even a 5 to 10 second increase in cycle time could result in a doubling of border delays for inbound vehicle travelers,” CBP said.
When it comes to data storage and management, ALPR data is managed and stored through CBP’s TECS system, which allows users to input, access and maintain records for law enforcement, inspection, intelligence-gathering, and operations.
Privacy advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have expressed concern about potential abuse and commercialization from the sharing of data acquired by law enforcement ALPRs around the country. However, border ALPR data is held by CBP and is law enforcement sensitive. Sharing is strictly with other federal and law enforcement agencies. Sharing of data is under the strict privacy rules of the Department of Homeland Security. However, most of the sharing comes from state and local enforcement agencies sending information on stolen or missing vehicles and people to CBP and the Border Patrol, rather than outward bound information from CBP.
The sharing pays off in numerous ways. For example, a young girl kidnapped in Pennsylvania was found in Arizona, thanks to ALPR border data. Armed and dangerous individuals from Indio, Calif., to Laredo, Texas have been apprehended thanks to border ALPRs. Missing and abducted children have been found and major drug busts have captured volumes of illegal drugs, including 2,827 pounds of marijuana in Falfurrias, Texas, and 60 pounds of cocaine in Las Cruces, N.M., all thanks to ALPR data.
One of the most startling reader successes on the border is the dramatic reduction in vehicle thefts in U.S. border towns. Thieves who steal cars in the United States and attempt to drive them into Mexico now have a much higher chance of being caught.
Laredo, Texas, led American cities in car thefts in 2009. In 2015, it was 137th. Similar drops were seen in San Diego, which dropped from 13th to 45th, Phoenix, which dropped from 40th to 80th and Brownsville, Texas, which dropped from 75th to 217th.
Funding for ALRP purchases comes from the Treasury Executive Office of Asset Forfeiture. While CBP makes an annual request to expand its outbound program, officials are now seeking a complete technology refresh to update second-generation readers installed between 2008 and 2011.
Improvements include higher-resolution day and night cameras, faster processing times, improved data security, lighter, more covert readers, mobile device connectivity , new audio and visual alarms, improved durability and reduced power consumption.
Officials would like to expand ALRP use along the northern border, reading vehicle plates leaving the U.S., starting in metro Detroit.
“We’ve requested the funding for the tech refresh,” says Davis. “We have a new contract and it has been priced out, but we’re not funded to do that refresh yet,” she says. However, officials are hopeful that funding will be found and an even more effective generation of readers can be deployed.