More license plate readers, patrol capacity coming to Denver to curb auto theft

After seeing the success of license plate readers at stopping auto thefts at Denver International Airport in the last few months of 2023, Denver city officials on Thursday announced a plan to spread the cameras across the city.

An example of the 111 automated license plate readers that will be placed around Denver in an effort to reduce the rate of auto theft in the city. (Provided by the Denver Mayor’s Office)

The license plate reader expansion is part of a new citywide plan to decrease rates of auto theft that Mayor Mike Johnston and Police Chief Ron Thomas announced in a news conference. The plan includes an expanded patrol force, a permanent auto theft prevention team, growing the DenverTrack program and collaborating with vehicle brands most at risk of being stolen.

The city has been a hotspot for auto thefts in a state that has been among the worst nationwide for years, but a city and overall state decrease has officials looking to expand efforts to reduce the crime even further. Denver saw a 19% decrease in 2023, Thomas said, and the state’s Auto Theft Prevention Authority recorded a 21% decrease overall from 2022 to 2023.

“Under the chief’s leadership, we deployed [the license plate reader] strategy at the Denver airport for the last six months,” Johnston said. “Over the last six months, we have dropped auto thefts at DIA by 90%. That is why our plan now is to expand that capacity across the city.”

The city will implement 111 license plate readers in more than 70 locations, which will be solely used to track stolen vehicle license plates and ones associated with certain violent crimes, Thomas said. Of those, 93 will be purchased through general funds. The other 18 were acquired through city council action.

Addressing concerns about the types of crimes monitored with previous license plate readers in the city, like the ones at 6th Avenue and Federal Boulevard, Thomas said this new wave of readers won’t be set for traffic violations or as justification for searching vehicles.

“It’s only going to be set for auto theft and violent crimes,” Thomas said. “Our policy is going to ensure it stays that way.”

City policy also ensures any data collected is not going to be shared with Immigration Control Enforcement, Thomas said.

The cameras won’t collect any personally identifiable information, and the footage collected will only be saved for 30 days unless specific pieces of footage are tagged as being evidence of a crime.

The police department determined the locations of the cameras based on crime trends, Thomas said.

This map shows where the Denver Police Department will place 111 automated license plate readers in an effort to decrease the rate of auto theft in the city. (Provided by the Denver Mayor’s Office)

“We certainly don’t want to have any disparate impact on any particular community,” he said. “The locations were identified through an overlay of violent crime, auto thefts, as well as hit and runs.”

The locations of the cameras and license plates identified as stolen that are being tracked will be published on the police department’s website.

Thomas said the department is still procuring the cameras, and then it will move on to the installation stage, which will last about four to eight weeks .

Another major addition for the police department, the expanded patrol capacities, will bring the force to pre-2018 levels, Johnston said.

“When we reduced our police force across the city, many things happened,” Johnston said. “One of them was our inability to respond quickly to auto theft. This is why are so focused this year on restoring our police force to full authorized capacity.”

Johnston and Thomas are working to fill three cadet classes this year, which will put 167 more officers on the streets. This increase was addressed in Johnston’s city budget.

In March 2022, the police department was 100 officers short of its full authorized uniformed officer capacity, according to the police department’s June 2023 police operations and staffing audit.

“That would bring us back to greater patrol capacity than even 2018, which will mean we’d have the people on the street who could quickly respond,” Johnston said.

Additionally, the city’s pilot auto theft prevention team will become permanent, dedicating a group of officers to focus on crimes.

The team, comprised of five investigators, two patrol officers and a supervising sergeant, arrested 201 of 2,200 total auto theft suspects and recovered 30 illegal guns, Thomas said.

The city is also looking to expand DenverTrack, which invites Denver car owners to register their vehicles to be tracked by GPS if they are stolen. More than 2,800 cars were registered in 2023, Thomas said, and no registered drivers saw their vehicles stolen.

The city will also work with car brands like Kia and Hyundai, which have been especially targeted by thieves, to host events for car owners to update software in their cars to prevent future thefts.

“This should be a clear message that if you steal a car in the city, you will be caught, and you will be prosecuted,” Johnston said. “That means you need to decide to either not do it or do it somewhere else.”

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