MCPD wants plate scanners

Mark Swistek

MICHIGAN CITY – The Michigan City Police Department is seeking permission from the city to purchase license plate reader technology as an additional means of combating crime.

Police Chief Mark Swistek asked the Common Council on Tuesday for just shy of $32,000 to purchase three Vigilant Solutions cameras to be mounted outside an unmarked police car. As that car travels, the chief said, the specially designed cameras would engage in a constant collection of data – from license plate numbers to vehicle makes and models, and more.

The cameras also possess facial recognition abilities, but Swistek said the MCPD would not use them for that purpose.

"As the vehicle travels throughout the city, the vehicle is recording data from every single vehicle that it passes on a roadway," he said. "If it is a four-lane highway, it will capture the majority of those vehicles as well. If the officer comes to a stop at a traffic light, anything that is nearby, it will record.

"And also, any neighborhood that we drive through – vehicles that are either passing the vehicle or vehicles that are parked on the side of the road or in a driveway – the cameras on this vehicle will hit all four corners of the vehicle."

Swistek provided examples of instances in which the technology could be helpful:

• A vehicle flees the scene of a homicide in Chicago and exits the interstate in Michigan City: The chief said if Chicago Police have entered a partial or known license plate number into the database, the officer driving the enabled squad car will be alerted should the cameras pick up that license plate.

• A shooting occurs at a large gathering in Michigan City: If the cars parked at the gathering have been scanned, and the MCPD learns the shooter fled the scene in a red Chevrolet Impala, officers can perform an analytic search to determine all the places and times in which vehicles matching that description were scanned, Swistek said.

• Officers are investigating known drug activity: The chief said the database will allow the MCPD to determine the locations to which vehicles suspected of being involved in drug deals have traveled and at what frequency.

According to the chief, other law enforcement agencies throughout the region already use the plate reader technology, including Chicago, Hammond, Munster, Whiting, Highland, East Chicago, Portage, New Buffalo, Indianapolis and Hamilton County.

Private towing companies that perform repossessions for banks and other lenders also use the technology, he said.

Swistek clarified that once information is entered into the database, it is accessible by all law enforcement agencies that use that database. However, towing companies and other private-sector businesses cannot access information entered by law enforcement.

To date, he said, 3 billion detections have been made across the U.S. using the Vigilant Solutions equipment, resulting in the location of murder suspects, drug dealers, missing children, stolen vehicles and more.

The Hammond Police Department reports having located an average of one stolen vehicle per week using the software, Swistek said.

In answering questions from the Council and public, the chief said the recurring cost to use the database will be about $19,000 per year. The annual fee covers data storage and software upgrades.

And for each year the fee is paid after the initial year, Vigilant Solutions will send the MCPD three more cameras, which can be used to build out the fleet with cameras or to install stationary cameras at intersections.

The annual fee would be accounted for in the MCPD budget under the line item for contractual services, Swistek said.

A public hearing on his request will be held at the Council’s July 16 meeting at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall. The council will vote on the matter at its Aug. 6 meeting.

That public hearing and vote also will address Swistek’s request for the TruNarc Handheld Narcotics Analyzer, which he also addressed Tuesday.

The MCPD would like to purchase a single TruNarc system at a cost of about $32,000 to replace its current means of field-testing suspected drugs during traffic stops and at other locations.

According to Swistek, the current method provides presumptive positives for only a handful of substances, whereas the TruNarc system can detect up to 400 substances with tamper-proof results on the spot.

In addition to being a more thorough and less time-consuming process, the chief said it’s also safer than the current system that requires officers to break glass vials, putting them at risk of injury, drug exposure or overdose.

The $32,000 price tag includes a five-year warranty, and there is no annual cost to operate the system. The only associated fees, Swistek said, would be to replenish testing supplies, which he estimated might cost a few hundred dollars each year.

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