WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (WAVE) – Cameras on criminals – Local police departments are turning to technology when it comes to fighting crime, speeding up investigations by hours, if not days.
Williamsburg, Newport News, Hampton, Suffolk, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake use license plate readers. Strategically placed cameras take a photo of every license plate that passes by and store that vehicle in a database for 30 days.
“We have over 20 cameras around the city covering all the entrances and exits as best we can,” said Williamsburg Police Department Detective John Heilman.
According to Heilman, license plate readers not only help recover stolen cars, but also solve murders. The department installed static readers in 2021 after a spike in thefts.
“It was very beneficial for us. We’d usually have a team of investigators go out and look for clues as to who the person was, where they might have gone, looking at past biographical information, some sort of life pattern, and then we’d have to do all these different follow-ups, whereas if we could figure out what car they’re in or the license plate, we can just go to the software, type it in, the reason we’re looking for it, and hopefully get a hit and just build on that,” Heilman explained.
The department has strategically placed 23 cameras along the city’s main thoroughfares and side roads. Using a technology called Swarming, Heilman can check each camera and see if there’s a hit.
“There are often crimes in the city that we don’t know about, but this system can alert us,” Heilman said.
Heilman explained that the software only records license plates and does not record the person behind the wheel. After 30 days, this image is automatically deleted.
Information may be shared across jurisdictions and across state lines.
“This speeds up our process of potentially identifying a missing person, returning them to safety and alleviating their loved one’s fears. Up and down the peninsula and in Hampton Roads, we’re seeing a huge increase in the number of jurisdictions using ALPR technology,” Heilman said.
One such neighboring jurisdiction is Newport News. His police department uses license plate readers in conjunction with a real-time crime center.
“Everything is so technology-driven now,” said Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew.
The city has fixed cameras installed along with license plate readers that give Newport News police officers a snapshot of what to expect before responding to a situation and give them a glimpse into the moments leading up to a crime.
“When you have materials with video footage, data or technology that allows us to do different things with the case, I think it makes the prosecution much more successful. Of course, it’s not just sitting in a room and staring at a camera. That’s not the point. Let’s go back 20-30 days, we had a robbery here. Is there anything matching that description, databases or files that we have retained,” Chief Drew stated.
Chief Drew tells 10 On Your Side that policing using technology helps his department stay one step ahead of criminals.
“We have spent a lot of money on training our technical officers. I think that’s the future, and I hope that this department is one of the leaders in the area in trying to make our community safer,” Chief Drew said.
The Williamsburg Police Department tells us they hope to add license plate readers to all of their squad cars this year. The City of Norfolk is also looking into license plate reading technology.
Check out WAVY.com for the latest updates.