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Braselton police call tag reader a cool tool
New device spots possible violators, but Hall County passed due to high cost
Braselton Police Officer David Bohannon uses infrared cameras on the front of his vehicle to scan hundreds of vehicle tags a minute. The technology is known as the Automatic License Plate Reader and was recently purchased by the department. - photo by LE ANNE AKIN

For the Braselton Police Department and other law enforcement agencies, the introduction of "cool tools" are giving police more weapons in their crime-fighting arsenal.

The department has made an investment in technology with the in-house addition of an Automatic License Plate Reader.

"It's big business and an amazing tool," said Braselton Police Chief Terry Esco.

The technological advances integrated into law enforcement have modernized his profession. Next month, Esco will have logged 22 years and his career dates back to the time when incident reports were written out on paper. Now officers use laptop computers in cars.

Within the last few years, accident reports by some departments have incorporated sketches of major intersections, and officers just place the involved vehicles.

"It's really amazing," he said. "But law enforcement is more challenging and we have to stay ahead of the challenges."

The tag reader offers one of the advantages. With the cost now $17,000, down from the launch price of $24,000, more departments are integrating the tool into their arsenal.

"We only have one right now but the use is spreading," said Esco, who credits the ALPR with capture of a fugitive and other cases made in the first three weeks of operation.

Despite rave reviews, though, some departments have shied away from using the device because of its expense.

Both the Hall County Sheriff's Office and the Gainesville Police Department have tested the product but ultimately passed on making it a permanent addition to patrol cars.

Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks with the sheriff's office said after a testing period compared the device's productivity to its cost, the department decided it was too expensive.

But even with the high price tag, Braselton police insist the product is an investment that will take care of itself.

Officer David Bohannon, the department's primary DUI officer, is trained in the ALPR's application. "David is very intelligent and computer oriented as are all of my guys."

According to Esco, the officer must set up just right to get the read that a vehicle's insurance has lapsed, a charge that can cost the driver $2,000 with a license suspension.

"In three weeks, it's just amazing what it's capable of doing," he said.

The ALPR allows a department to "have a tool to stay ahead of everybody a little," said Esco.

He admits he was at first hesitant to bring in the technology, but found out at the Association of Chiefs of Police meeting in Savannah that the investment was well worth it. He is now recommending the reader to other chiefs.

It doesn't take long for a department with a night shift to recoup its investment in the ALPR. With Ga. Highways 211 and 53 and the interstate to cover, the Braselton force is using the reader to its advantage to scan the volume of traffic flowing through the town. The reader is a plus for side streets and southbound traffic, however, northbound vehicles are often captured by ALPR-operating officers in other jurisdictions.

Braselton Police Officer David Bohannon uses the infrared cameras on the front of his vehicle to scan hundreds of vehicle tags a minute. The new technology is a "cool tool," he says, but it can't replace good police work.

Using infrared technology, the two cameras mounted on the front of Bohannon's vehicle take information with 600 tags a minute being read.

Pictures are taken of the tag and the vehicle and the information is converted to text.

If a hit is verified with Jackson County dispatch to confirm that a vehicle registration is expired, has no insurance or that there are active warrants for the owner, the reader "freezes" and photographs the tag and vehicle.

Bohannon has a degree in computer science and is familiar with the complexity of the device.

At the start of his shift, Bohannon downloads the data that will match against the license plates scanned as drivers pass by the cameras. The Mobile Plate Hunter will also generate a report of all the tags run on a shift.

With the ALPR, departments are not profiling drivers. Officers are using technology to learn about the vehicle's registration status and state of insurance, Esco said.

Staff writer Patrick Stoker contributed to this report.