NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – It is technology billed as helping fight crime and locating missing people. But it is still not clear whether some License Plate Recognition (LPR) cameras used by law enforcement across the state can read Tennessee’s new license plates at night.
The Tennessee Department of Revenue confirmed it has issued 725,000 of the new Tennessee license tags, which have a dark blue background and white numbers and letters.
The issue with nighttime reads surfaced as far back as February 7, with agencies in West, Middle, and East Tennessee reporting problems. The Department of Revenue said it had been made aware of the situation and was working with law enforcement and camera providers on a fix.
On the night of Monday, February 28, News 2 worked with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) to take a closer look. We drove a pickup truck with the new license plate past one of WCSO’s LPR cameras three times (6:33 p.m., 6:37 p.m., and 6:40 p.m.).
Images provided by WCSO show its camera, manufactured by Flock Safety, captured the outline of the truck, but the license plate was washed out and unreadable.
A sheriff’s department LPR technician collecting the data from the camera said no blue plates were picked up past the camera, but that older Tennessee plates with a white background and dark letters were visible. Plates from other states were also visible.
Tim Holman is an electrical engineer who has been conducting studies using an LPR camera he developed at home. He said he was not surprised while reviewing the images of our test with WCSO.
“What you saw on the test you did with the Flock Safety cameras is very similar to what I have seen on my own cameras, because of the poor contrast between the background and the lettering of the new plate, Holman said. “It’s very, very hard to get good consistent reads under every angle and every lighting condition. That is completely consistent with what I am seeing on my own camera system. I can still easily see out-of-state plates. I can see the old plates. But no matter how I try to adjust my camera settings on my own system, I cannot capture the new plates except under rare circumstances, but never consistently.”
Holman believes the new plates need to be visible to LPR cameras at night because cities, law enforcement agencies, and homeowners associations have already invested money in this crime-fighting technology for images to be anything less than crystal clear.
“I think it is a big concern – a public safety concern,” Holman added. “Also, the issue is, you have a lot of small-town, communities, even neighborhoods that have purchased LPR systems, and now they will find those systems don’t work at night. And it is not like the criminals will be ignorant to that, they will know about it, and they will take advantage of it. So again, it is a matter of public safety.”
Flock Safety, which works with several Tennessee law enforcement agencies, did not respond to email requests for an update. In previous statements, Flock said it is making software adjustments to cameras, many of which are reportedly updating now.
The Knoxville Police Department and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office both use Flock cameras. Last week, both agencies said they were working with the vendor on improvements, but that the situation had not been fully rectified.
Mt. Juliet Police uses cameras produced by Rekor Systems as part of its ‘Guardian Shield’ program. Last week, MJPD said it was not having major problems, but there were issues with nighttime reads in some low-light areas.
Holman said, “In my opinion, unless they change the hardware to the cameras and replace all the cameras, they will find it very difficult.”
He added the state should fix the plates during the manufacturing process, so they react to LPR technology consistently.
The Tennessee Department of Revenue issued this statement:
The Department of Safety and Homeland Security and Department of Revenue are conducting tests of plate samples utilizing various LPR systems in use throughout the state. Based on our current understanding, nighttime readability appears to vary significantly by LPR model and is not limited to one specific color formula. Some systems can read the new license plate and a range of other test samples successfully. For other systems, there may be opportunities to improve readability.
Both departments are working together and with industry stakeholders to determine the best path forward. We will vet these issues thoroughly to prevent an uninformed or insufficient response. To date, roughly 725,000 new plates have been issued.
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UPDATE: Late Tuesday evening, Flock Safety responded to email requests for an update, issuing the following statement:
Flock is continuing to push software updates that have resulted in positive improvements to the TN plate readability. We have updated all of our cameras in the state and will continue to monitor the situation as the accuracy rates increase over the next few weeks. We are regularly communicating these updates to all of our customers in Tennessee. I cannot give you a list of all of our customers in the state, but the software update has been pushed to all cameras.