Without lifting a finger from his squad car's steering wheel, Patrolman Antonio Ellis completed a routine check of license plates in the parking lot of a Manchester bank.
As he neared the exit of the lot, a "Low Alert" sounded, accompanied by a message on the computer screen mounted in his police squad car.
"New Jersey Motor Vehicle expired," he said.
A photo of the car and a reading of its license plate appeared on the monitor. Ellis manually compares what the Automated License Plate Recognition system interpreted to the actual photo of the New Jersey tag.
It's a match — the owner of the white sedan neglected to renew the vehicle registration, the system reported. Since the parked car isn't operating on public roads at the moment, Ellis went inside the bank to issue the driver a warning.
The PIPS Technology system, purchased at no cost to the township with a $33,000 Department of Homeland Security grant and installed on one Manchester patrol car, will allow officers to be more productive, said Chief of Police Brian Klimakowski. Manchester has what are deemed "critical infrastructures" in town, including Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, which is why the federal money was awarded.
"This will obviously help us track down cars that aren't registered, that are suspended, that are attached to drivers that are wanted," Klimakowski said. "This platform magnifies what a patrol officer could do by a hundred. It does something that's not even possible by a human."
Mounted on the top of the patrol car is the three camera system — two cameras face forward at 45 degree angles and a third aims sideways. The cameras pick up license plate numbers through infrared signals.
When the camera-equipped squad car is on the road, "I like to say, Manchester has three extra eyes on patrol," Ellis said.
Part of the purchase price included training. Major Police Supply, the vendor in New Jersey, came to the department for a day of training last week, which Ellis said was enough to learn the system.
"It pretty much runs itself. It's very easy to interface with," the patrolman said. "It's very user-friendly — we can't have distractions in the car."
During a demonstration given to Manchester Patch last week, Ellis parked his patrol car in front of the Municipal Complex on Colonial Drive. In about 10 minutes time, the system read nearly 70 license plates of vehicles driving in both directions on the roadway.
Since the system can run in the background while an officer completes other computer work, such as typing up a report, for example, it allows police to be more productive. Ellis said that part of a patrolman's duty is randomly checking license plates — an efficient officer could manually check about 150 to 200 plates per shift.
"This system can do 3,000 per shift without him having to touch the keyboard," Ellis said.
The technology does not signal the beginning of a more invasive police department, according to Klimakowski.
"This new piece of equipment enables us to do what we've always been allowed to do, just at a higher rate," the chief said. "Law enforcement officers have always been allowed to conduct random checks of license plates via computers. These cameras are just magnifying the job that a police officer can do."
Each plate is compared to two databases — the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission which is updated weekly and the daily-updated National Crime Information Center. If a match is returned, the system alerts the officer accordingly.
"An expired registration would be a low priority," Ellis said. "A stolen vehicle or wanted person would be a high priority."
Before officers respond to a database hit and stop a vehicle believed to be in violation, they must verify that the information is correct.
"[The system] is not 100 percent accurate," Ellis said. "You have to verify what it's taking a picture of. You have to verify it translates [the license plate] correctly."
The plates captured by the system are stored for five years, as mandated by police policy. The cameras are able to pick up plates even at speeds of 160 mph, or 80 mph for the patrol car and 80 mph for a vehicle traveling the opposite direction.
Different audio cues are sounded depending on if an alert is issued, minimizing distraction to the patrolman driving the car.
"It definitely allows [an officer] to concentrate on his primary tasks," Ellis said, such as using his eyes to scan the road for violations and paying attention to safe driving.
"We're really excited about this new piece of equipment," Klimakowski said. "Overall, it's definitely going to be an asset to Manchester and will be an effective tool."