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Lakewood police unable to pursue stolen cars identified by high-tech system: 'we installed the technology before we didn't have the manpower'

Lakewood police unable to pursue stolen cars identified by high-tech system
Lakewood police unable to pursue stolen cars identified by high-tech system 03:12

At one of Lakewood's busiest intersections, advanced license plate reader cameras are constantly scanning passing license plates, instantly detecting stolen cars and immediately notifying police officers within seconds when law enforcement databases indicate a stolen car is passing through.

License plate reader cameras or LPRs can be a critical tool for police departments seeking to track down and arrest auto thieves.

But Lakewood Police Commander Mike Greenwell laments that more and more car thieves are being detected, but simply driving away because there are no longer enough officers to track them down.

License plate reader CBS

"We don't have the personnel to go to try to find those cars or if we do, we are so far behind we don't know where that vehicle is now," said Greenwell.

He told CBS News Colorado that in the most recent quarter on record, from July to September, the LPR cameras scanned two million vehicles and detected 500 stolen cars.

Greenwell said the system is best utilized by having officers within a block or two. Then when they are notified of a stolen vehicle, they can immediately follow it and potentially try to stop it. But not anymore.

"500 stolen cars we were not able to go after because Denver or Lakewood doesn't have the personnel to do that right now," said Greenwell.

"Most agencies these days cannot do that because they don't have the personnel to go chase those license plates down," he said. 

Greenwell said Lakewood officers are generally too busy with higher priority calls and can't position themselves to wait for a "hit" on a stolen car.

"Great technology that we can't use because we don't have the people to do it," he said.

Although Denver police are understaffed, and citizens frequently complain of long wait times for police response, DPD Director of Communications Doug Schepman said, "the ways in which DPD has used the LPRs hasn't changed much over the past few years based upon staffing levels."

Schepman said proactive enforcement teams "still monitor the systems for hits and can attempt to contact a driver if they are available and nearby, and these teams will occasionally have an officer park near the intersections and attempt to apprehend auto theft suspects and recover stolen vehicles."

The Parker Police Department uses similar technology, but its license plate cameras are not in fixed positions; they're affixed to five patrol cars and instantly notify the officer at the wheel if he or she is near a stolen vehicle.

License plate reader affixed to a police car. CBS

"It's a great tool," said Parker Police Officer Chase Kelsay. "We can't run plates like these cameras can."

Parker police say their mobile LPR cameras have led to the recovery of 49 stolen cars this year.

"It's making a big difference," he said.

In Lakewood, Greenwell says while the initial intent of the stationary cameras was to help catch car thieves and prevent further crimes, they are still proving useful in providing leads and helping solve other serious crimes.

But Greenwell is clearly frustrated that a manpower shortage has constrained the use of the LPR cameras.

"We installed the technology before we didn't have the manpower," he said. "While this does not sit well with me as the commander of the auto theft task force, recovering stolen vehicles and arresting those who steal cars is my job."

"But as a leader in my agency," he continued, "I also understand the difficulties in making this happen on a routine basis when you don't have the people to respond to urgent calls for service."

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