Automated License Plate Readers on the U.S. Border
By David Silverberg
September 5, 2017
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When U.S. Border Patrol agents stopped a vehicle at the border checkpoint in Douglas, Ariz., it wasn’t a lucky break. They had been on the lookout for the driver’s vehicle and it had been spotted by an automated license plate reader (ALPR). The driver, attempting to escape into Mexico, was arrested on suspicion of murder.
All along U.S. borders, ALPRs changed the face and pace of security and enforcement – although not in ways most people might expect.
While APLRs may occasionally catch individuals with a criminal record trying to come into the United States, they play a much greater role in stopping criminals trying to leave. The systems have driven a dramatic drop in vehicle thefts in U.S. border towns. They’ve also been instrumental in finding missing persons and stopping contraband.
“Recognition technology has become very powerful,” says Mark Prestoy, lead systems engineer in General Dynamics Information Technology’s Video Surveillance Lab. “Capturing an image – whether a license plate or something more complex such as a face can be successful when you have a well-placed sensor, network connection and video analytics. Once you have the image, you can process it to enhance and extract information. License plate recognition is similar to optical character recognition used in a printed document.”
“It’s an enforcement tool,” says Efrain Perez, acting director of field operations and readiness for Customs and Border Protection (CBP). “They help us identify high-risk vehicles.”
The agency has about 500 ALPR systems deployed at 91 locations to process passenger vehicles coming into the United States. It also has ALPRs on all 110 outbound lanes to Mexico, which were added in 2009 after the U.S. committed to trying to interrupt the flow of cash and weapons from the U.S. into Mexico. CBP is slowly adding the devices to outbound lanes on the Canadian border, as well.
For APLRs surveilling inbound traffic, their primary purpose is to eliminate the need for border officers to manually enter license plate numbers, allowing them to maintain a steady gaze on travelers so they can spot suspicious behavior and maintain situational awareness. Outbound traffic trained ALPRs are used to identify high-risk travelers, help track the movement of stolen vehicles and support other U.S. law enforcement agencies through the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System.
Along the southern U.S. border, most ALPRs are fixed units at ports of entry and cover both inbound and outbound vehicles. Along the Canadian border, most APLRs are handheld units. CBP officials hope to install fixed readers at northern ports of entry in the future. “The hand-held readers are not as robust,” points out Rose Marie Davis, acquisition program manager of the Land Border Integration Program (LBIP).
The first generation of readers was deployed around 1997-98 timeframe. Today, LBIP incorporates the technology, experience and lessons learned from that initial effort. Another effort, under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative in 2008 and 2009, extended those lessons learned to all other aspects of inspection processing.
The readers serve three purposes: Information gathered from vehicles transiting checkpoints is checked against a variety of law enforcement databases for outstanding warrants or other alerts. Once through, the readers allow CBP officers who conducted the primary inspection to maintain observation of a vehicle after passage.
CBP operates both fixed and mobile border checkpoints in addition to ports of entry.
But the ALPRs’ facilitation of legitimate travel and processing is one of its most telling and least publicly appreciated roles, Davis noted. “That automation facilitates legitimate travel. On our land borders it’s used to keep up the flow.”
With roughly 100 million privately owned vehicles entering through land borders in fiscal 2016 and 24 million processed at inland Border Patrol checkpoints each year, the ALPRs significantly reduce the need to manually enter license plate information – which takes up to 12 seconds per vehicle – on top of entering numerous other data points and documents, according to Davis.
Those extra seconds add up. CBP says it averages 65.5 seconds to process each vehicle entering the country, or 55 vehicles per lane per hour. That number drops to 46.5 vehicles per lane per hour without ALPR.
“For a 12-lane port like Paso Del Norte in El Paso, Texas, the throughput loss without ALPRs [would be] equivalent to closing two lanes,” CBP said in a statement. The technology is even more critical to CBP’s Trusted Traveler Programs (NEXUS and SENTRI), which allow participants express border-crossing privileges. Those highly efficient lanes now process vehicles in just 36 seconds, so adding 12 seconds processing time to each vehicle would result in a 33 percent decline in throughput.