Run The Plates

by Katie Lee

Shopping mall drives up security with automated license plate recognition (ALPR).

By Amy McKeown

Shopping malls are constant hubs of activity, which can create a challenging yet essential need for maintaining a secure and safe space. Especially with shoppers often multitasking — talking on their phone, texting, packing or unpacking the car, searching for a prime parking spot, or trying to find where they parked — criminals see distracted shoppers as an ideal target. Even  recently disclosed that most mall-related crimes occur in the parking lot.

Recently, a leading major shopping mall management company teamed up with local law enforcement to find a more effective parking lot monitoring solution. Their search led them to automated license plate recognition (ALPR) cameras.

A pilot program was initiated at a Modesto, California, mall where select security patrol cars were equipped with mobile ALPR cameras and a touchscreen monitor, and six fixed cameras were placed in strategic locations on the mall’s perimeter.

ALPR Mobile GroupSo how does it work? All of the ALPR cameras are constantly patrolling, capturing images of license plates, while the associated software management platform cross-references those captured images to daily updated watch lists. Partnering with local law enforcement, the mall sends the information gathered from its ALPR cameras directly to local law enforcement services. This helps ensure that privacy of data is maintained, and empowers both organizations with even more data.

Authorized mall employees are able to create and update their own watch lists, often referred to as “hot lists,” which can include license plates of banned former employees, convicted shoplifters or other banned patrons. If an ALPR camera identifies a license plate and matches it to a hot list, security guards are notified and may respond to the situation accordingly.

The system can run multiple hot lists simultaneously, which allows local law enforcement to be alerted if, for instance, a plate captured in the mall parking lot matches that of a stolen car or a wanted felon. Matches to law enforcement lists are set to “covert” mode, a setting that prevents the mall’s system from alerting their security employees and instead, sends the information directly to law enforcement. With law enforcement officers and mall security guards working collectively, resources are distributed efficiently, leading to more robust and effective security measures.

While ALPR technology helps quickly identify and defuse security situations, the time- and date-stamped images from ALPR cameras can also provide invaluable information after incidents have occurred.

Beyond Security, ALPR Helps Improve the Shopping Experience

ALPR provides other benefits for mall visitors, aside from security. For example, when a patron cannot find his or her vehicle, security guards can reference ALPR data to help quickly locate a customer’s car. ALPR can also help ensure prime parking spots are available to customers instead of store employees. The mall can simply upload a list of employee license plate information, and the ALPR system will inform the security guard of employees parking in non-designated locations.

ALPR backend software programs offer analytical and reporting features, so malls can also benefit from the cumulative data that can be derived. For example, a mall can determine when they have the most visitors, where those visitors enter and exit, and which parking lots are most frequently used. In turn, malls can identify optimal locations for events, promotions or news, or even allow more effective planning for construction or the placement of security staff.

In the case of Modesto, where law enforcement maintains the backend servers and software where data is accessible, the mall can work with local law enforcement to run the reports on their behalf and export them to authorized parties. These reports are set to contain no identifiable personal information, only cumulative data. With data privacy concerns top-of-mind, no personal data or information is provided to the mall.

After the successful pilot program in Modesto, the shopping mall management company has deployed ALPR technology at six of its properties and plans to expand the program throughout the majority of their locations in the western United States.

As an affordable investment, ALPR offers more than just a proactive approach to public security. When used in combination by shopping facilities and local law enforcement to combat vehicle driven criminal activities, resources are maximized helping to create a safer, more comfortable shopping experience.


— Amy McKeown is U.S. public security marketer for 3M, which applies science in collaborative ways to improve lives daily. With $32 billion in sales, 3M’s 90,000 employees connect with customers all around the world. 3M is a trademark of 3M Company. Email the author at [email protected].

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