Jonesboro police to implement tag reader systems

Jonesboro Police Chief Franklin Allen

Jonesboro Police Chief Franklin Allen

Jonesboro officials are planning to buy police car cameras that would allow the city’s law enforcement officers to check multiple license plates within a matter of seconds.

The Jonesboro City Council voted unanimously Monday night to spend as much as $26,100 to buy “Tag Reader” cameras for eight police vehicles. City police officials explained that ongoing testing of the system has already shown the cameras are helping their department dramatically increase the number of people they are catching for violations, such as expired tags, no insurance and suspended licenses.

City police officers issued 215 traffic citations for such offenses, during the last three weeks, while they were testing the readers, according to Jonesboro Police Chief Franklin Allen. He added that is approximately 200 more citations than they likely would have issued without such a system.

“The trial run has been very successful, and I feel like this is a very worthwhile investment to add to the arsenal of the equipment that we use on a daily basis,” Allen said.

Although the city council gave Allen the OK to spend the $26,100 it would cost to buy one three-camera version of the tag reader, it is possible the department may spend less than that amount. Allen said the department is about to conduct a test on a tag reader offered by another company, which costs approximately $15,000.

The council’s decision gives him leeway to buy that lower-cost version instead, if he feels it would be a better choice for his department.

The chief said some of the money used to buy the system will come from $13,000 that was left over from the purchase of two new patrol cars. He added the rest of the money will from the city’s technology fees that are added onto municipal court citations.

Allen explained the tag reader cameras are mounted inside police patrol cars, and they scan the license plates of vehicles that pass by the officer in that patrol car. He said the readers can read multiple license plates within “microseconds” of the moment when they pass by. Vehicles that have any issues attached to them are flagged, and the officer operating the system is notified immediately.

“Anything associated with that vehicle, or the registered owner, whether it is suspended registration, suspended license, no insurance, or a wanted person ... will immediately signal an alarm [in the patrol vehicle],” the chief said.

Jonesboro Police Officer Philip Perry, one of the officers testing the system, said the two-camera system camera system that has just been tested involved one camera facing the front of a patrol car, and another one facing the car’s rear. That allows officers using the system to track vehicles moving in two different directions on a roadway, he explained.

“It reads every tag, and it logs every tag into the system, so every tag that is read is stored,” Perry said. “If we have a burglary at a residence, or at a business anywhere, and we have a partial tag, or a vehicle description, we can manually go back into the system and type that in. It will pop up all of the vehicles matching that description whose tags we have read in that vicinity.”

Police Department officials said the downside to the two-camera system, however, is that it does not catch every lane of traffic on Tara Boulevard, which is why they will also look at a three-camera system.

Perry said people wanted for more serious offenses have even been found by Jonesboro police because of the system. “I’ve recovered a stolen vehicle off of it,” he said.

He added there is additional software that is going to be tested that will allow officers to track arrest warrants for people charged with failure to appear in court. Allen said one of the few traffic offenses the system will not catch is speeding.

Clayton County Police, Riverdale Police, Forest Park Police, and Morrow Police already have such similar tag reader systems, according to Jonesboro’s police chief.

Allen also said the system should also increase the amount of money the city collects through citations, because more tickets will be issued.

City Council Member Clarence Mann suggested that would mean the city could buy a small number of tag readers initially, and use the increased citation revenues to gradually expand the city’s inventory of readers.

“If we were to buy one of these units, and if we were to bring in the revenues that are anticipated, we could purchase additional units as this paid for itself,” Mann said.

City council members had several questions for Allen and Perry about the tag reader system. Their inquiries included how it might be perceived by the public, what kind of system might work best for the police department, and whether cases involving these systems have been overturned in courts in other jurisdictions.

“A lot of people might look at this as a ‘Big Brother’-type piece of equipment, and might be afraid of it,” said Council Member Joe Compton. “Am I correct in understanding that this piece of equipment is only capable of doing what you’re doing now on the radio — only much faster?”

Allen explained that it is actually 10 times faster than the less advanced method of an officer calling it in to the police department for a tag check. He later added that officers often times cannot catch all of a tag on their own without driving behind the vehicle for a prolonged period of time.

“Have you read or seen any case law, where any of these have been turned over?” Council Member Randy Segner asked.

Allen said he has not found any such case law. He added that the city’s first cases involving vehicles caught by the tag reader, during the test period, are expected to appear in Jonesboro Municipal Court on May 3.