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Stonington - The police department has a new tool that makes it much easier for officers to determine which drivers on the road have violations or are wanted on criminal charges.
Since July, one of the department's cruisers has been temporarily outfitted with a license plate scanner that reads the plates of cars and instantly compares it with an updated database of cars wanted for violations, crimes and other reasons.
Since it went into use here, police have been able to identify and cite 60 drivers for violations such as driving with a suspended license.
"The first time we used it in downtown Pawcatuck, it went crazy," said Capt. Jerry Desmond, referring to the frequency of the alarm that sounds when a car with a violation is spotted.
"We wouldn't have identified any of them without the LPR (license plate reader)," he said.
Unless officers are familiar with a driver, they typically have to stop a car for another violation before they are able to determine if the person is wanted for other issues.
The department has the unit on loan through November, thanks to Lt. Todd Olson, who was at a police exposition where ELSAG North America, the company that manufactures it, held a raffle in which a department got to put one to the test. Olson won the raffle.
On Friday morning, Sgt. Bryan Schneider, who oversees the department's fleet of vehicles, demonstrated use of the unit.
As he drove through two parking lots adjacent to the police station, images of cars and then their plates appeared on the in-cruiser computer screen. A Google map location of the vehicle was also shown.
The unit immediately checked a "hot list" or updated database, to see if the car is wanted for any type of violation across the country.
An alarm goes off if there is a violation and a red bar appears on the screen. A question mark can also appear if there is a question about the plate, such as whether letters are unclear.
Schneider said that if the reader does identify a car with a violation, officers check the plate on their own to make sure the person is indeed wanted.
"It's a good tool for the guys on patrol to have," Schneider said.
Two cameras are mounted on the rear of the cruisers, and a small control box is in the trunk.
Schneider said the unit saves data for 30 days, which he said is helpful if police are investigating a crime and need to determine where a car was at a certain time. He said it can also be used to alert officers to vehicles connected to Amber Alerts, missing children and people wanted on arrest warrants.
"We hope to deploy it as much as possible. The best part is it's something we can use to solve crimes, not just stop people for violations," he said.
While the police department cannot afford to purchase one of the $15,000 units, Desmond said it would make sense for the state to buy a few and let departments across the state use them.
He said the money the state would earn from the violations would quickly pay for the units.
"The return on the investment is tremendous," he said.