The unexpected way license plate readers find missing persons in Virginia

License plate readers are relatively new in Virginia’s Fairfax County, but police think that beyond helping them find 30 stolen cars and arrest 50 suspected criminals in the last few months, the technology has also helped them find four missing people.

“We have found that a lot of our community members, when they go missing, often end up in cars,” Fairfax County police Lt. James Curry said. “Sadly, there are circumstances where individuals — whether it’s through mental or physical health concerns  — that either walk away or there are disappearances, their locations unknown to family members, and that’s when police get involved.”

The department can use its license plate readers as a tool, when a missing person’s loved ones shares with police the plate number of a vehicle they could be in. It’s exactly what happened in mid-March, when officers were trying to find a woman who had driven away from her home.

“She had been missing for hours, and thanks to these LPRs that were in the area, they received an alert … they responded to that immediate area, began canvassing and found that car,” Curry said.

But in another case last month where there was no car involved, police were still able to use the plate readers to help.

“We had a community member who was in her 70s walk away from a residence in Reston, and officers immediately began searching the area, they gathered some information that they believe she could have gotten on a bus nearby,” Curry explained.

Using the LPRs, first installed on county roads last November, they ran the recent bus plates and working with Fairfax Connector, officers found and returned the woman to her family.

“It’s a great tool that has not only helped us in our crime fight, but we’re seeing a lot of benefits with returning missing people. We have no doubt that we’ll continue to see this type of success with this technology,” Curry said.

The cameras are not used to track drivers who have unpaid fines or tickets, but rather to find those involved in serious crimes, like kidnappings or armed robberies.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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