How LPR could have been used to bring down the Son of Sam
Between 1976 and 1977, New York City was being terrorized by a serial killer infamously known as the Son of Sam – later to be identified as David Berkowitz. During that span, Berkowitz was responsible for the killing of six young people and wounding of seven others with a .44-caliber revolver. In response to the killings, the New York City Police Department launched the Operations Omega Task Force to hunt down the suspect whose identity remained unknown throughout the investigation.
On July 31, 1977 in Brooklyn, NY (the date and location of the final murder) a major break in the case occurred when an eyewitness came forward to report that police officers had been writing parking tickets near the scene of the crime that evening. One of those parking tickets was issued to a cream-colored Ford Galaxie that had illegally been parked in front of a fire hydrant. Authorities eventually determined that this vehicle belonged to David Berkowitz of Yonkers, NY. Ten days later after working with the Yonkers Police Department, the Omega Task Force detectives finally arrested Berkowitz while leaving his home.
While all credit must be given to the dedicated police officers and detectives whose tireless efforts solved this case, one can’t help but wonder if modern day advances in technology (namely License Plate Recognition or LPR) could have been used to identify potential suspects sooner – limiting the brutality and duration of these types of pattern crimes. After all, it was a license plate on a parking ticket that eventually led to Berkowitz’s capture.
Fast forward to today and most parking enforcement duties have shifted away from traditional police department responsibilities. However, parking enforcement’s role in helping to determine the successful outcome of a criminal investigation has not. Consider the following – no other individual does more routine patrols of a downtown area or college campus than a parking enforcement officer (PEO). Throughout the course of their daily routine, PEOs are continually seeing and interacting with vehicles that are parked on local streets and in off-street parking facilities. The parking industry’s shift towards License-plate Enabled Parking (LEP) has only helped to increase the frequency of these patrols thanks to the efficiencies gained by putting PEOs in vehicles equipped with LPR technology as opposed to just having PEOs on foot.
The use of LPR now allows cities, universities, airports and private operators to more efficiently enforce both paid and permit-based parking, as well as easily identify parking scofflaws which can yield a significant increase in revenue. However, if an agency decides to just stop there, then they are missing out on another huge benefit that comes from that parking agency’s use of LPR technology.
Since we have already admitted that the PEOs are most routinely circulating throughout downtown areas and college campuses, then these agencies should absolutely be leveraging the PEOs’ ability to provide additional insights that can help to keep communities safe – while at the same time not compromising the personal safety of that officer. This capability now exists by a technology that is known as “blind alerting”.
According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, over 70% of serious crimes in the United States involve the use of a vehicle – either before, during, or after the crime has been committed. Furthermore, a report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has shown than more than 10% of property crimes in the United States occur in parking garages. Looking at these statistics, combined with the fact that parking garages are often attached to high-value terrorist targets (airports, hospitals, malls, sporting venues, etc.), one can quickly determine that the “vehicle intelligence” data that is gathered through parking operations is paramount to helping support safer communities.
Going back to the Son of Sam case, what if in the 1970s the New York City Police Department had been able to query license plates scanned within the proximity and date of each heinous act by David Berkowitz? Would they have been able to generate a “common plate report” after the second or third incident that could have yielded an investigative lead earlier on and possibly prevented further violence? One can only speculate on what may have been different.
The good news is that today no speculation is required. LPR data from PEOs can and should be accessible to law enforcement agencies with permissible purpose to use that information as part of a criminal investigation. Data sharing should be simple, and it should be easy to both audit and control. At the same time, the parking agency that generated that LPR data should at all times have full control and remain the ultimate owner of that information. They alone should decide who they share their LPR data with, and what the retention period of that information should be. Fortunately, modern day LPR solutions allow for such a scenario to exist.
When discussing LPR technology, there is often a healthy debate over privacy concerns and the use of LPR data. However, one must remember that there is no personally identifiable information (PII) contained within a traditional LPR detection. Instead, the LPR detection is made up of an anonymous serious of letters and numbers, combined with geo-location and date/time stamp metadata, plus some vehicle images. Only with permissible purpose can a law enforcement agency or a parking authority query a license plate database (typically maintained within a state’s Department of Motor Vehicles) to extract registered owner data. Therefore, the vast majority of plate data that is captured via LPR will never be tied to PII unless the vehicle owner or operator commits a crime or fails to pay an outstanding parking violation.
In recent times there have been many cases where LPR data that is shared by a parking agency to local law enforcement has resulted in a successful outcome. These examples include:
- A city in Texas has recovered dozens of stolen vehicles by receiving real-time alerts from LPR detections that are generated by their local PEOs. As the PEOs’ LPR-equipped vehicles are driving the city streets, a mirror copy of their LPR detections are seamlessly run against a hot list that is managed by the local police department – all without the PEO being alerted or distracted from their responsibility of enforcing the local parking regulations. The police department actively responds to the stolen vehicle alerts while the PEO safely continues along their enforcement route.
- After an Amber Alert was issued in the State of New York, it was a shared LPR detection from a parking lot patrol a few towns over that ultimately led to a six-month old baby being located unharmed and brought home to his mother. The detection also led to the timely arrest of the child’s abductor.
- When a police department in Massachusetts stopped a stolen vehicle, a historical search of shared data from a private parking operation at a local mall showed a recent scan of the stolen plate. CCTV video from the mall on the date of the LPR scan also showed clear images of additional suspects that were part of a larger auto theft ring. This led to positive suspect identifications that resulted in multiple arrests.
- In the State of Missouri, by working with local law enforcement a mall property owner’s decision to share their LPR data led to a huge break in a case of organized retail theft that spanned multiple properties and jurisdictions. This was also a great example of a public-private partnership between the two agencies.
Whether they realize it or not, Parking Enforcement Officers play a vital role in the safety & security ecosystem – as the very nature of their job responsibilities requires them to be on constant patrols. A unified approach to License Plate Recognition applications can assist local police agencies to make their communities safer while also bolstering day-to-day parking operations.
The use of LPR technology in parking will only continue to increase as cities, towns, universities, airports, and private operators seek ways to increase operational efficiencies while decreasing costs. Furthermore, in a post-COVID world LPR will increase in popularity due to its ability to bolster contactless payments and frictionless parking. By leveraging the full spectrum of LPR’s benefits, these agencies will yield higher returns on their investments – all while helping to keep our communities, campuses, and facilities safe from the everyday threats that are out there.