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Of all the many ways in which technology is handing the police service new ways to combat and investigate crime, Automatic Number Plate Recognition ANPR is perhaps the least well understood. Sometimes confused with CCTV, the volume of information ANPR cameras on our roads is capable of generating makes it a powerful tool. But one of the big challenges with ANPR is to broaden understanding of how it works and how it can best be used.

As ACPO lead for ANPR, I am actively working within a group set up by the IPCC, which also includes input of wider interest groups such as Liberty and No CCTV, to raise public confidence in the system and to meet concerns such as how we collate and store data or intrude on private individuals. Many stem from lack of understanding about how ANPR can keep people safe.

We use ANPR in three key ways, to identify and disrupt criminals, gather intelligence and investigate crime. Usually, ANPR consists of a camera linked to a number plate reading device. A photograph is taken of a number plate, the photo is passed to the reading device and the number plate instantly compared against criminal database records, along with the date, time and location of the vehicle.

ANPR is not, as many people think, primarily used for speed enforcement or traffic offences. While the system is used to enforce the congestion charge in London, ANPR main value is against a wide range of serious offences. The prevention and detection of crimes such as burglary, drug offences, sexual assaults and murder can all be very significantly aided by ANPR.

ANPR differs significantly from CCTV. Data is very easy to capture and quick to search and can rapidly identify locations of potential interest. An important difference includes the ability for ANPR to be used so that offenders can be stopped in real-time.

ANPR’s immense potential has in some respects led the system to become ‘a victim of its own success’ as Independent Police Complaints Commissioner Nicholas Long said following the investigation into the tragic murder of Ashleigh Hall. While the IPCC concluded it was impossible to say whether police could have prevented Ashleigh’s death, ANPR cameras picked up her murderer’s movements on several occasions before his arrest.

A great advantage in an era of transparency and value for money is the fact that the camera response is non discriminatory. The key to ANPR is intelligence-led policing. To make information usable there has to be sufficient intelligence to link a vehicle to a crime.

Without unlimited resources, it would be impossible for a force to use ANPR to its full potential and monitor or respond to every ‘hit’ of a suspicious vehicle. But this makes it vital that the right priorities are applied so that the police do respond to the most important. It’s also a powerful example of where differing local approaches could reduce policing effectiveness. Through ACPO I am working with chief officers to support national standards on ANPR and broaden understanding, so its immense value to public protection can be maximised.

Simon Byrne is Assistant Commissioner at the Metropolitan Police Service and ACPO lead for ANPR.