The surveillance program uses 250 cameras that photograph license plates and then store that information in local databases. It was designed to catch would-be terrorists, but local police say the program is particularly effective in apprehending more run-of-the-mill criminals.
The $1 million Department of Homeland Security grant will allow local police in the capital region to maintain existing cameras, create a new database shared by several police departments and add three new fixed camera sites.
The new cameras are likely to be placed along Interstate 270 in Maryland and Interstates 66 and 95 in Virginia -- meaning every car traveling to or from the District will now have its license plate recorded and checked against a terrorism watch list as well as a registry of stolen cars.
"As a result of license plate readers, we identify more vehicles to the Terrorist Screening Center than we ever did before," said Arlington County Police Capt. Kevin Reardon, who administers 10 cameras in Arlington. "Because, literally, before you had to stop that car and get a match. Now as that car drives by you're getting a hit on it."
Reardon said that at least one arrest a day is made in the Washington region thanks to the license plate-reading technology.
Even as local authorities begin expanding the program, some privacy advocates expressed concerns about police collecting and storing information about law-abiding citizens.
"First of all, it's unwise because it poses a real risk to individual drivers, and second, it's unnecessary because it doesn't fulfill the objective the program to find cars used in illegal activity," said John Verdi, senior counsel for the D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.
But Reardon said there have been few, if any objections to the program, and that Arlington discards its data after 30 days. Other jurisdictions keep the data for only a few days.
"At first people are a little unsure, and then they're like, 'Wait a minute -- if this helps keeps bad guys off the streets, then I'm OK with it,'" Reardon said.