How license plate readers are helping University Police solve crimes

URBANA, Illinois – The University of Illinois Police Department has long made technology a key piece of its police work – its security network of more than 2,300 cameras has provided critical evidence in countless criminal investigations.

But February will mark just one year since it began installing and incorporating an emerging technology – automated license plate readers.

University Police have five license plate readers of their own on campus property, and also have access to readers installed over the last year or two by the Champaign Police Department and Champaign County Sheriff’s Office. Those departments have collaborated and shared information to solve crimes across the county.

License plate reader information is not monitored in real-time. University Police have a carefully worded policy that aims to enhance the health and safety of the campus community while respecting and protecting the privacy of people using campus-area roads and promoting transparency. Access to the system is restricted to authorized users and for law enforcement purposes only. The records are not used for enforcing minor traffic offenses.

Preventing gun violence was one of the primary considerations in the initial decision to install license plate readers — fortunately, University Police have not much occasion to use them for that purpose. No on-campus shootings have been reported since they were brought to campus. One shooting was reported in August several blocks from campus.

They have, however, been useful in other incidents investigated by University Police. Here are just a few cases where license plate readers provided key evidence or previously unavailable leads:

Stolen vehicle and violent offender

On Feb. 12, a University Police officer received an alert that a stolen vehicle had just passed through the intersection of Dunlap Avenue and Curtis Road in Savoy. He immediately traveled to that location to check it out.

The officer found that vehicle parked at a nearby restaurant, and the person who was driving it was eating inside. He was arrested for possession of the stolen vehicle.

Police later learned that man was suspected in multiple crimes in the Chicagoland area, including at least one violent crime.

Man arrested for ‘prank’

On Aug. 7, a U. of I. student called 911 to report that she was walking on campus when she was approached from behind by a man who attempted to pull her pants before running away. The report prompted an immediate Campus Safety Notice sent to all students, faculty and staff.

University Police reviewed campus security camera footage to identify the vehicle that the man had used to leave campus, and they loaded that vehicle information into the license plate reader system.

Within a few days, a license plate reader alerted police that the man had returned to the campus area. Police found the vehicle parked at a gas station, and the man was arrested for aggravated battery. He claimed that the attack on the student was a prank.

Road rage

On Jan. 10, a driver called 911 to report that someone in another vehicle had just displayed a handgun in a fit of road rage.

The driver provided a description of the vehicle. Upon reviewing license plate reader data, police learned that a vehicle matching that description was in Urbana.

Within a few minutes of the original 911 call, officers found the car and the gun suspected to have been used. The driver had a Firearm Owner’s Identification but not a concealed carry permit. She was arrested for unlawful use of a weapon, disorderly conduct and aggravated assault.

Stolen scooter string

In August and September, multiple electric scooters ranging in value from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand were reported stolen in the campus area. The string of thefts was significant enough to prompt a Campus Safety Notice sent to all students, faculty and staff. Police would eventually find the people responsible for most of the scooter thefts – and a few more that were previously unreported.

There were several threads to that investigation, but a key break came when investigators first discovered security camera footage of a vehicle used in the thefts. They entered the vehicle information into the license plate reader system and received several alerts over the course of a few days that the vehicle was continually passing one reader in particular in Urbana.

From there, investigators could determine where the scooters were being brought after they were stolen. They obtained a search warrant for that address and recovered seven scooters in total, including several that had been taken from U. of I. students. The person responsible was arrested, and a no-trespassing notice for all campus property was issued to another person who was indirectly involved.

Hit and run

On a rainy Oct. 25, a U. of I. student stepped out into Springfield Avenue to avoid a large puddle in the sidewalk. When the student did so, he was sideswiped by a passing car severely enough to knock the car’s sideview mirror off. The driver continued on without stopping to check on the student or call police.

The student did not require immediate medical assistance, but later traveled to a local hospital to get checked out. Although the student was technically at fault for the accident, the driver was now wanted for the hit-and-run.

A police officer was able to match the broken sideview mirror, which had been left behind on the side of the road, to the year, make and model of the vehicle that struck the student. The officer then checked out campus-area security camera footage and found a car matching that description driving away from the scene of the accident – now with a missing sideview mirror and heavy side damage.

The officer then checked license plate reader data from the area and found the same vehicle, along with its plate number. He contacted the registered owner, who admitted being involved in the accident.

The driver also had an outstanding warrant for failure to appear in court. He was arrested for leaving the scene of an accident and the warrant.

Stolen vehicle and gun

On Sept. 7, a U. of I. employee reported that his vehicle had been stolen from U. of I. parking lot E-14, 1800 S. First St., Champaign. The vehicle contained jewelry and a firearm owned by the employee.

Police reviewed campus security camera footage to find out that the car thief had traveled to Lot E-14 with another person in another car. They checked license plate reader information from the area to get a plate number. It turned out the suspects’ car was a rental, the rental company was able to provide information about the driver.

Police separately learned that one of the suspects had sold the jewelry to a local pawn shop and provided his name there – another revelation that was aided by license plate reader information.

All of the information gathered was used to obtain a search warrant for the suspects’ home in off-campus Urbana, where police found ammunition, methamphetamine and materials typically used in packaging drugs for sale.

The stolen vehicle and firearm were not recovered at that time, but were later found by the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office during an unrelated incident. Both people were eventually arrested for their involvement in the car theft.