In one of the nation’s worst metropolitan areas for auto theft, authorities will soon have an all-seeing set of eyes on their side.
The Mesa Police Department will be the state’s first agency to deploy a vehicle-mounted license plate scanner. It’s capable of reading upward of 1,000 plates an hour while checking them against national and state databases of stolen cars.
When the system gets a hit, it immediately flags the plate, time and location of the vehicle — all determined through the Global Positioning System.
"The parking lot at Fiesta Mall, we did that in 15, 20 minutes," said detective Dennis Thomas of the department’s auto theft unit.
As part of a three-year grant from the Arizona Auto Theft Authority, the department will keep track of how many plates are read, stolen vehicles recovered and arrests made thanks to the Mobile Plate Hunter 900. Testing was done in April, and the device will hit the streets early next month.
Valley police agencies will share the scanner, Thomas said.
To be sure, there will be plenty of opportunities for the scanner to prove itself. The Valley ranks second nationally in vehicle theft rates, behind only Modesto, Calif.
Currently, finding a stolen car can be difficult. An officer has to choose a vehicle out of all those on the road and manually type in the plate number.
With the scanner — three small mounted cameras feeding data into a laptop computer — a search of hundreds of cars can be made in the time it takes to drive past them. It works while the officer’s car is moving.
The system, made by Remington Elsag Law Enforcement Systems of North Carolina, costs less than $30,000. Grants will pay for all but $2,500 of that, Thomas said.
Experts’ reviews of the scanner were mixed. Chris McGoey, a Los Angeles-based security consultant, said it would be a fine tool for Valley police.
"And you need it, because right now you’re losing the war," said McGoey, who runs the Web site www.crimedoctor.com.
But auto theft expert Rob Painter wondered whether the scanner could live up to the hype.
"Are you familiar with LoJack?" asked Painter, referring to the system that allows the tracking of a stolen car via radio transmissions. "I call it LoJunk."
Although Thomas said the grant restricts Mesa’s scanner’s use to finding stolen vehicles, he acknowledged its capability expands with every database into which it is plugged. For instance, motor vehicle records can be used to find expired registration and vehicles could be traced to parents delinquent on child support.
"But the only thing we’ll be looking for is stolen cars," Thomas said.