Automatic number plate recognition continues to deny criminals the use of our roads, says Deputy Chief Constable Simon Byrne
During a day-long UK-wide campaign in March 273 people were arrested and 487 cars seized. A bag of cannabis in a car that was stopped led to the discovery of a cannabis factory at a property linked to those in the vehicle; another car stopped was found to be a stolen vehicle with false number plates and thought to have been involved in several burglaries. Both triggered a ‘hit’ from a database after a scan and read by an ANPR device.
Police around the UK use ANPR devices to detect and remove serious criminals, unsafe vehicles and unsafe drivers from our roads. They are not speed cameras. It is well known and well reported that many criminals rely on vehicles to commit crime and there are very strong links between the illegal use of vehicles on our roads and other types of serious crime. By denying criminals use of the roads, the police are better able to enforce the law and prevent and detect crime.
Use of ANPR
ANPR technology is not new. It has been around since the 1970s. The first arrest to culminate from its use happened in 1981 with the arrest of a man in a stolen vehicle in 1981. Since the 1990s ANPR has been used to counter terrorism, particularly in London. There is now widespread deployment of ANPR, both fixed and mobile, along major routes in and out of urban centres. Mobile devices allow police to be flexible in their deployment and enable us to monitor different routes, depending on operational requirements.
ANPR is a simple technology. It was developed in 1976 by Dr Richard Stevens and his colleagues at the Police Scientific Develop Branch. ANPR devices (cameras) scan and read vehicle registrations. That information is then checked against information stored on the Police National Computer (PNC) and other databases, such as those of the Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency (DVLA) and the Motor Insurers Bureau. Officers are alerted on the spot if the vehicle is of interest to police. Those vehicles can then be stopped by a dedicated ANPR intercept team and the occupants spoken to.
The use of ANPR goes a long way to addressing the public’s desire to see more officers on the street and more action against illegal drivers. Given the link between vehicle documentation offences and wider criminality, it can be shown that the targeting of these offences through the use of ANPR enabled intercept teams can make a significant contribution to wider policing objectives. Vehicles on our roads that are unregistered, uninsured or without an MOT or excise license can also be dealt with swiftly and removed from our roads. By targeting and removing vehicles that are more likely to be involved in accidents the roads are made safer.
Evidence of success
ANPR has proven its worth many times. Operation Utah was first implemented in July 2007 after meticulous planning. It has since evolved to be a highly successful ANPR collaboration with nine police forces and partners from VOSA, Environment Agency, Border and Immigration, DVLA, Department for Work and Pensions, Customs and Excise, Highways Agency, NCP, Inter Route, Animal Health, and Second Severn Crossing.
In total, nine Utah operations have been completed which has led to: 162 arrests, Class A drugs recovered with a street value of over £200,000, cash seizures, over £150,000 (with further enquires leading to assets of over half a million pounds), stolen vehicles, stolen plant, ammunition, firearms, individuals found to be wanted on warrant for offences such as kidnapping, failing to appear and other offences – some who have been at large for over two years, illegal immigrants, registered sex offenders, drink drivers, disqualified drivers and even cannabis factories have been discovered from UTAH checks conducted at various regional locations. Nearly 300 vehicles have been seized for having no insurance. Vehicles running on illegal red diesel, cooking oil together with benefit fraudsters, road tax evaders and those transporting illegal waste have all been swept up in this highly successful and effective operation. The intelligence gathered from each of these operations has also proved invaluable.
Of course not all are happy with the use of ANPR and some organisations and individuals believe that the use of this technology intrudes into the lives of ordinary people going about their normal daily lives in our towns and cities and on our roads. Senior police officers understand those concerns but the main priority of police is to keep people safe, to take criminals off our streets and to fight crime. Law-abiding citizens and motorists have no need to fear they will be targeted by the police and they will be allowed to use the roads unhindered. Generally vehicles are only stopped where records suggest that some form of road traffic offence has been committed or there is a known police interest.
Technology to fight crime
Criminals and terrorists are becoming increasingly more sophisticated in their activities. The police therefore need to keep pace with their crime fighting capability. ANPR has proven its worth many times and officers working on ANPR operations arrest up to five times more offenders than patrol officers normally would. It has been highly effective in securing very quick lines of enquiry that have led to early arrests and in securing the very best evidence to support criminal prosecutions.
There are strict ACPO guidelines on the police use of ANPR to prevent abuse of the technology and no permanent records are retained by the police. Our current guidelines are that data should not be stored for longer than two years providing there is a valid policing purpose for the retention.
ANPR is an invaluable tool in the campaign to make our communities safer and to allow the majority of people who lawfully use our roads to continue to do so unhindered. The safer our communities and roads are, the better for everyone.
About the author
Deputy Chief Constable Simon Byrne is the chair of the ANPR National User Group, Association of Chief Police Officers.