George Mason University

News at Mason

Mason Criminologists to Evaluate License Plate Reader Technology

November 21, 2013

By Rashad Mulla

Cynthia Lum

Cynthia Lum. Photo by Alexis Glenn

Between 2007 and 2009, police agencies across the United States invested heavily in license plate reader (LPR) sensory equipment with the belief that the technology’s potential to reduce crime, particularly automobile theft, would be well worth the $20,000–$25,000 cost per unit.

Now, thanks to a Department of Justice grant of more than $550,000, Cynthia Lum, Chris Koper and James Willis, members of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy (CEBCP), will embark on a full-scale research project to analyze the degree of crime control and weigh the costs and benefits of LPR technology.

LPR equipment, placed on police automobiles or in fixed locations, scans and reads license plates, stores the information and compares current readings to a database of plates that have been flagged by law enforcement. These license plates are typically associated with stolen vehicles, or may be registered to individuals involved in a police investigation.

Previously, Lum, director of CEBCP, conducted research that chronicled the rapid infusion of LPR into police departments nationwide. In a 2009 randomized survey by Lum and her colleagues, more than one-third of the surveyed agencies reported using LPR technology. Also in 2009, Koper, senior fellow in CEBCP, documented the crime control effectiveness of the technology, but only in one city: Mesa, Ariz., with a population of about 450,000.

Christopher Koper

Christopher Koper

“This study will look at the cost-effectiveness and effectiveness of LPR technology in police investigations,” Lum says. “Does LPR data reduce time to case closure? Does it increase case closure in general? Police agencies, especially after the economic recession, are very concerned about money and how to spend it. Technology costs a lot of money, but is it really worth it?”

The two-year project will have four major components. First, Lum, Koper and Willis will conduct a large, national survey on LPR adoption to follow up on the 2009 research. Second, they will conduct an experimental evaluation of a large agency with a significant infusion of LPR technology, comparing crime in specified areas with and without the use of the LPR equipment. Third, the research will look at the use of LPR technology in criminal investigations. Finally, the CEBCP team will conduct cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness analyses to determine the true value and worth of the technology.

“We want to find an agency that has a larger number of LPR devices, and then mount a field experiment where we try to determine the value added from the technology,” Koper says. “How much additional ‘bang for the buck’ do you get when you add this technology to an already evidence-based, strategic way of patrolling?”

While LPR technology seemingly fits with auto theft crimes, the CEBCP team will explore its effect on a variety of criminal investigations, attempting to quantify this impact by relying on an array of measurable statistics.

“There are a lot of questions about how effective LPR technology can be, and how much of an investment agencies can make until they reach that critical threshold of effectiveness,” Koper says.

By the end of this project, police officers nationwide should have some answers.

This article originally appeared on the College of Humanities and Social Sciences website.