Brad Nettles // The Post and Courier

License plate cameras mounted in Charleston

If you drive a vehicle around these parts, a photograph of your license plate and the back of your vehicle may well be among the whopping 11 million images in a database available to local law enforcement agencies.

In January, when authorities were looking for a murder suspect who drove a white van, they gave reporters a photograph of the van and its license plate. The photograph had been taken in May 2010, more than seven months before the murder.

More recently, on April 20, a North Charleston police officer patrolling in a squad car equipped with a mobile license plate camera was alerted to a stolen van that he had just passed on Spruill Avenue. He turned around and found the van, and, after a foot chase, arrested two people and returned the van to its owner.

The massive database, and the technology behind it, was incubated by Project SeaHawk, a counter-terrorism task force formed in 2003 in which federal, state and local agencies investigated and responded to threats involving the Port of Charleston.

In May 2007, SeaHawk, with assistance from the South Carolina Research Authority, began setting up an Automated License Plate Recognition, or ALPR, program. There were two fixed cameras, one in North Charleston and another in Charleston. There also were several federal grants made to local and state agencies to install mobile cameras in vehicles.

There were more than 650,000 images in the ALPR database by the fall of 2009, according to a report posted on a camera manufacturer's website.

By the end of March, that number had grown to more than 11 million, said Reggie Lloyd, director of the State Law Enforcement Division, which currently maintains the database.

In many cases, there may be multiple shots of a car or vehicle. Lloyd said he does not know how often the database is purged.

In 2009, Project SeaHawk and its funding were shuttled from the Department of Justice to the Department of Homeland Security. The grant for the ALPR program was given to SLED.

Lloyd said the program has proven valuable and is likely to be continued regardless of additional grants.

"SLED is the repository in the sense that it runs through our system," Lloyd said. "Today, we have developed an interface that will enable the agencies to compare (the tag) to the NCIC FBI database."

There are several manufacturers of ALPR cameras and software, Lloyd said. An October 2009 report on the success of the SeaHawk ALPR system is posted on the website of NDI Technologies, one of the manufacturers involved in the deployment of ALPR in Charleston.

Lloyd said SLED purchased additional storage capacity for the images and maintains the software and hardware that enables agencies to use the ALPR data in conjunction with national, state and local crime information systems.

Of course, ALPR programs are fantastic tools for tracking stolen cars. North Charleston has several patrol cars equipped with license plate cameras capable of scanning hundreds of license plates an hour.

Last week, the North Charleston Police Department's weekly stolen vehicle report contained 20 vehicles, four of which were mo-peds. Of the remaining 16 cars, trucks or sport utility vehicles, there were ALPR captures for seven of them. Those color images are distributed to the officers and are available to them on the department's internal network.

The Charleston Police Department has one mobile unit and is hoping to get more, Deputy Chief Anthony Elder said.

"It's been a positive program and we've had a number of successes with it," Elder said. The department intends to apply for grants to get additional units.

Capt. Jim Woods of the Charleston County Sheriff's Office said the ALPR system will accept partial license plate numbers and spit back likely matches, a feature that comes in handy when only a partial number is available.

"It's a wonderful crime fighting tool, and an apprehension tool," Woods said.

Other agencies with mobile cameras include the S.C. Highway Patrol and the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office.