New technology has enabled police around the country to reduce crime and track down stolen cars simply by turning on a computer.
That technology now has a use in Oro Valley.
Last October, the Oro Valley Police Department bought a license-plate reader that now sits atop one of its patrol cars.
The reader — two cameras connected through an onboard laptop computer — snaps photos of license plates on parked and moving vehicles.
The computer reads the plates and checks them against a database filled with the license plate numbers of stolen autos or those whose owners have warrants for their arrest.
The technology has helped Oro Valley police recover at least one stolen car and spot numerous motorists with arrest warrants.
“We’ve seen just how effective this can be,” Oro Valley Police Chief Danny Sharp said.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety updates the database twice daily.
More than 50,000 plates from across the state fill the system.
The Oro Valley Police Department bought the $22,000 camera system with money acquired from seized items sold at auction.
Officers and police volunteers drive the camera-equipped car through area shopping center parking lots or just around town, where it can read thousands of plates an hour.
Police volunteers Bob and Carolyn Milkey drive the car during their twice-weekly shifts with the police.
“It’s like that old video game ‘Missile Command,’” Bob said, describing how the system lights up the computer screen with flashing red lights when it recognizes a license plate number.
The Milkeys have volunteered with the police for the past two years.
They underwent 40 hours of training in police work including how to direct traffic, check unattended houses and converse in police-radio speak.
“It’s an entirely different language,” Bob said.
The couple retired to Oro Valley in 2006 from the Washington, D.C., area, where Carolyn worked on political campaigns and Bob was an astronomer.
Training with the police, the Milkeys also received extended instruction on how to use the license-plate reader.
When the reader recognizes a plate, the volunteers check the photograph on the system’s computer to verify that it’s an Arizona plate. The database only holds statewide information, while the cameras read plates regardless of origin.
It also reads more obscure items at times, like traffic signs and numbers on buildings.
Once a plate comes up, the volunteers verify the plate and then call the police with the information.
“If we get an activation, we’ll move away from it and wait for an officer to respond,” Bob said.
The volunteers move away for numerous reasons, Bob explained.
For one, they don’t want any potential suspects to know the police have seen them.
More importantly, though, volunteers are not authorized to confront a potential criminal or interfere in a police officer’s job.
The computer also doesn’t let the volunteers know why it was activated.
“You can see that all we’re dealing with is plates and numbers,” Carolyn said.
In the course of a four-hour shift, the system read nearly 2,000 license plates — more than any officer could ever do entering numbers by hand into an onboard computer.
“Those are the sorts of proactive measures that we are focused on,” Sharp said.
The more proactive work police can do, the better, according to Sharp.
He points to Tucson’s high rate of property crime and a record for homicides last year as what Oro Valley wants to avoid.
Tucson closed 2008 with 74 homicides — Oro Valley had one homicide last year.
With the help of technology like the license plate reader and through proactive police work, Sharp said word has spread among criminals to stay out of Oro Valley.
“That’s the goal,” Sharp said, “To keep the criminal element out of Oro Valley.”