Amid Rise in Carjackings and Car Theft, Philly Police Down to One Plate Reader–and No Stats

Despite Philadelphia police having automatic license plate readers, the city has seen a surge in car thefts with no concrete data on if any cars have been recovered or arrests made. The NBC10 Investigators team found out why that is and what the police plan to do about it.

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In 2013, the Philadelphia Police Department was dealing with more than 5,000 car thefts annually.

To help the department combat those car thefts, a state task force gifted Philly police 25 automatic license plate readers. They are cameras mounted on top of police cars that take pictures of every license plate they pass and automatically cross reference with a database of stolen and wanted vehicles.

The primary purpose according to the department’s directive was “reducing stolen vehicles, stolen license tags, increasing the recovery of stolen vehicles and increasing the apprehension of offenders in Philadelphia.” 

Fast-forward 10 years and the city has seen a surge of vehicle thefts. More than 6,400 cars were stolen as of the end of April. In 2022, more than 12,000 vehicles were stolen. 

Carjackings have also increased and police have been dealing with the issue of paper license plates. 

All of which, Philadelphia Police Captain Shawn Thrush says, could be addressed with the use of automatic license plate readers.

“That tag will be picked up on our cameras and tracked. So sometimes it does work to our advantage. We can say that this paper tag has been used in these four particular incidents,” Thrush said. 

But the NBC10 Investigators found that Philadelphia is down to one operating automatic license plate reader. We also found no evidence of any arrests or vehicle recoveries happening as a result of the automatic license plate readers — even when more than one was functioning. 

Copies of the last two years of plate reader quarterly reports show 12 million license plates were photographed during that time but zeros are listed all up and down the reports when it came to noting the number of arrests and recoveries or terror watch hits. 

In interviews with several officials within the police department, they said that automatic license plate readers do work and have led to arrests. But there was confusion among top brass as to who keeps track of the data — and if any of it even exists. 

“I would find it hard to believe that they didn't have any hits that would lead to the recovery of the vehicle. But I'd have to look into it more,” Krista Dahl-Campbell, Deputy Commissioner for Organizational Services, said. 

Dahl-Campbell is in charge of reviewing the quarterly reports compiled by the Real-Time Crime Center. She said she didn’t recall seeing the reports before we showed them to her. 

Following our interview, a department spokesperson, said no other reports exist that track Philly’s license plate readers effectiveness.

“It is safe to say that the reporting mechanisms in place do not accurately capture what ALPRs can do,” the spokesperson said in an e-mail.

The commanding officer for the Real-Time Crime Center, Captain Edward Thompson, signed off on some of the recent quarterly reports that showed zeros all throughout. He compiles those reports based on what the district captain sends up the chain of command. 

“Whatever the captains of the districts are doing with ALPRs and what they're documenting there, we're not getting here. We do not get here,” Thompson said in an interview.

He then e-mailed citywide statistics for vehicle recoveries and arrests. But said: “Parsing those by recoveries/arrests because of ALPR isn’t possible with the data we have available.”

Although not listed in any of the quarterly reports, PPD’s major crimes unit had one license plate reader they used until earlier this year. According to a department spokesperson, the officers in that unit kept their own statistics for that plate reader. They show that since 2019, more than 500 vehicles have been recovered and 23 people were arrested.

But the spokesperson told us those numbers are “considered unofficial numbers.”

Meanwhile, the department is expected to receive 200 new license plate readers in the new year. The new batch will also be funded through a state grant using federal dollars. It is in partnership with the District Attorney’s Office. 

The new cameras will be connected with the city’s existing software and so record keeping should be better, Dahl-Campbell said.

“It's definitely something that I want to pay closer attention to, especially now that we're going to have the ability to have these in a lot more locations,” she said.

Dahl-Campbell and Thompson said that the city ended up with just one license plate reader from the initial 25 because the Southeastern Pennsylvania Regional Task Force which funded them stopped paying for maintenance in 2020.

“There were a lot of maintenance problems. A lot of the cars got condemned and they were taken out of the vehicles. So we started losing them,” Thompson said.

By the start of 2021, the department was down to 13 working readers. Officers were still using them for thousands of hours each quarter. 

Then by the last quarter of 2022, five were listed as operational but were used for 467 hours total. 

They were working for a week. They're not working. So it wasn't a full month that they worked,” Thompson said. 

And apparently zero arrests or cars or tags recovered.

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