The University of Florida Department of Physical Security began phase 2 of license plate reader, or LPR, installation in October, continuing an investment in the technology that was used to investigate the hit-and-run death of UF student Maggie Paxton in December 2020.
This technology was installed throughout UF in October 2020, completing phase 1 of the three-part camera installation project. Phase 2 is expected to be completed in November, said Joseph Souza, director of UF physical security.
LPRs are motion-activated cameras that continually take rear-end photos of vehicles as they drive by, capturing each car’s license plate, make, model and color, he said.
“It detects the motion as the car drives by,” he said. “It also does an optical character recognition, or OCR, scan of the plate itself. It transcribes this data and queries the information off a law enforcement database. It is looking for vehicles of interest.”
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The first phase of installation included 16 locations at traffic signals along the perimeter of campus. A total of 61 cameras were installed, and the cameras view 90 lanes of traffic, he said.
Phase 2 will include 13 additional locations on campus with 25 cameras covering 28 lanes of traffic. The locations for phase 2 incorporate power poles around UF and additional traffic signals, costing $514,000, he said.
Gainesville Police Department spokesman Graham Glover emphasized the crucial role these cameras played in solving Paxton’s death.
An LPR on West University Avenue captured the car involved in the incident. The car drove by other LPRs as it left the scene, and the Gainesville Police Department was able to arrest the alleged driver of the vehicle, Joshua Alexander Figueroa, 31, in July. Figueroa was charged with failing to stop for a crash involving a death.
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University of Florida Police Chief Linda Stump-Kurnick seconded the impact these cameras had on the case.
“Without the license plate readers, this case would not have been solved,” she said.
The cameras allowed the police department to track down the owner of the car. Investigations revealed it was the owner’s son who was driving the car and fled the scene on the night Paxton was killed, Glover said.
The Gainesville Police Department has been using these cameras since 2017. Additional LPRs were installed around Gainesville in 2020 with a $130,000 federal grant, he said.
Between October 2020, when the cameras were installed, and April 2021, the Gainesville Police Department used the technology to solve or assist the investigations of 36 cases, including 18 stolen vehicles, two burglaries, one carjacking and three business robberies, Souza said.
While these cameras may raise privacy concerns, they are solely used to track vehicles of interest, Glover said.
“They are not being used for speeding,” he said. “The LPR system is designed to help law enforcement identify people who have been involved in significant crimes and have fled scenes.”
The cameras are mounted in areas with high traffic patterns or high crime rates. They are active all hours of the day and use infrared light to capture photos at night, Souza said.
Even with Florida’s intense weather, the cameras successfully capture accurate photos. Heavy rain may skew the images, but police verification catches these mistakes, he said.
The cameras are calibrated and checked periodically to ensure the data collected continues to be accurate, he said.
University of Florida police oversee the data from the cameras and receive live alerts from the database. This data is shared with other LPR databases around Florida, he said.
“That is where the value comes from,” he said. “We are working together, not separately or independently.”
The shared data and technology of the cameras decreases the time police need to find people or vehicles of interest.
“The Gainesville Police Department, University of Florida Police Department, Florida Highway Patrol and Alachua County Sheriff’s Office cannot be everywhere at all times,” Graham said. “If someone is involved in a crime and there is a description of the vehicle, the LPRs can help us locate the suspect much quicker.”
The date for phase 3 of LPR installation has not yet been set. The UF department of physical security plans to install cameras around the east side of campus and the P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, Souza said.