Automated License Plate Recognition

Two hundred and twenty lane miles—that’s how much street exists in Mt. Lebanon if you count every lane from every road. Since the average human walks just more than three miles per hour, it would take a person three days to cover the whole town.

Now you understand the challenge of Mt. Lebanon’s parking enforcement officials in getting around to ensure all drivers have paid for their meters, are current on their parking pass fees and have properly signed up for overnight parking, not to mention making sure cars are not parked too long in areas with a maximum parking time.

That’s where technology comes in. With Commission approval, Mt. Lebanon is ready to begin the process of integrating car-mounted automated license plate recognition cameras (ALPRs) to simplify and improve parking enforcement. Just by driving past a row of cars, the enforcement officer can instantly see if everyone is paid up or signed up and if not, print out a ticket instantly.

The upgrade is a project of the Mt. Lebanon Police Department, the police parking enforcement office and the Mt. Lebanon Finance Department. The system is expected to making parking enforcement more fair but it also means you’re going to need to pay close attention to the rules.

Mt. Lebanon’s parking enforcement has long been handled by one civilian meter enforcement officer, who can cover three to four rounds of metered spots, parking lots and limited-time parking areas on foot in a daytime shift. Mt. Lebanon has 1,022 parking spaces in the business district, 441 of which are metered, with another 567 in our North and South garages.

In addition to meters and parking lots and garages, Mt. Lebanon has limited-time parking areas. That setup prevents someone from parking on the street all day while they are at work, making it so others cannot easily find parking. Officers used to keep track of how long cars were parked in those areas by making chalk marks on the tires during a set time period. But in April, a federal court ruled physical chalking unconstitutional, akin to committing trespassing and conducting an unreasonable search.

For Mt. Lebanon’s new system, the officer will make many passes through all public parking areas, allowing the cameras to read plates. ALPRs are efficient and can read approximately 95 to 98 percent of all the plates the driver passes even in bad weather, says parking enforcement supervisor Mark Quealy. The reader is then tied into Mt. Lebanon’s parking software to confirm such things as permit status or time left on the parking session.

The cameras will be “digitally chalking” cars parked in limited-time zones, and notify the officer of violations.

In the process, you can say goodbye to most parking meters. By the end of 2021, the majority of Mt. Lebanon’s public paid parking will be “pay by plate.”

Drivers will go to a nearby pay station, type in their license plate number, pay with a credit card or coins and then go on their way, without having to return to the car to put a receipt on the dash. Parking officials activated the system in the Academy Avenue parking lot in September. If you’ve parked in places like the Strip District, Downtown Pittsburgh and the South Side, you already have the hang of it.

Some areas, such as the Overlook Lot near Beverly Road, will be converted to pay stations soon. Other places, such as the meters on Washington Road, will have to wait a few years until the planned upgrades to the entire business district make it practical to replace the parking meters with pay stations. And we still may have a few places where meters must remain because of physical site challenges of putting in pay stations or because the limited number of meters that make paying for a station unfeasible.

Finance Director Andrew McCreery estimates the entire system will cost $300,000 over the next two years, with phased implementation.

In the future, the municipality could choose to add another parking enforcement officer to help enforce the overnight parking ordinance at an annual cost of $50,000 to $60,000. Currently, no one may park on Mt. Lebanon streets between 2 and 6 a.m. unless they request permission and register the plate with police for each night on the street. Registered plates are in the police database and on-duty patrol offers enforce the rules.

Under the new plan, police still would check overnight parking, but an additional civilian parking enforcement officer could free police officers, allowing them to spend more time focusing on criminal activity.

Of course all this means Mt. Lebanon will be giving out more tickets. Quealy said the City of Pittsburgh had a 35 percent increase in tickets issued when it brought the camera enforcement to Oakland. (ALPRs also increase revenue because drivers no longer get freebies when they roll up to a meter that still has time on it.)

But the system would also be fairer, because the enforcement officer could cover the entire town frequently, instead of focusing on one part due to limited time.

While some old-style parking meters in Mt. Lebanon will remain, within two years most municipal parking lots will convert to pay stations within the next two years. Cameras would be used to identify license plates and cross-checked to see if the driver paid for parking.

Another benefit of the system is that plates the software reads are compared to a hotlist of plates belonging to criminals or suspects. The list includes stolen vehicles, expired registrations, vehicles involved in Amber Alerts or the Megan’s Law database, and owners with outstanding warrants. That data would be automatically sent only to Mt. Lebanon’s police department; the parking officer would not see it or know that it happened, to ensure proper protection of confidential records.

Both Quealy and Lauth say capturing plates does not violate privacy, as tags are the property of the state and there is no reasonable expectation of privacy on the road. Lauth says it’s no different than an officer standing at a corner writing down plate numbers. Using computers and networks is considered a “service extender” by helping the police to work more efficiently and consistently.

McCreery says the violation data will be kept on file for a maximum of three months; less if the system fills quicker than that, to make room for more data. Other than the police department, no other organization or agency has access to the data, and Mt. Lebanon will not sell it or give it to anyone else.

The only plates to be scanned are those in municipal zones, such as public streets, lots and garages. Nobody will scan plates in driveways or on private property, McCreery says.

Mobile cameras aren’t the only ones reading your plates. Mt. Lebanon already has cameras at many intersections, and the information gleaned from them has helped to solve a list of crimes, including thefts from local business and from Mt. Lebanon ATMs.

By 2021, the Mt. Lebanon Police Department hopes to add three camera setups to its patrol vehicles. The system would alert police to many enforcement issues in real time as officers drive during their shifts, including expired registrations and stolen vehicles. Police could be alerted if a car enters a part of town where the driver is not permitted to be, such as in the case of a protection from abuse order. Cars identified as part of Amber Alerts can be better tracked. The setup is estimated to cost $75,000 and is included in the Mt. Lebanon Capital Improvement Program.

There are no federal or state laws that govern police use of ALPRs, but Mt. Lebanon police have a strict policy that officers must follow. The department is only interested in plates that show up on the hotlist because of a violation or other valid reason, such as an ongoing police investigation. No one other than sworn police officers may access any database.

“We have to have a legitimate law enforcement reason,” Lauth says. The policy forbids police from tracking plates for any other reason. And any time police look up plates on the database, they must have the police report number associated with the investigation to document the reason for the lookup.

As camera use expands, Lauth says he will make sure the policy keeps up to date, looking at best practices to keep up with trends.