Olympia to install license-plate cameras to combat various criminal activities


Olympia Police Chief Rich Allen announced on Wednesday that the department plans to utilize the $100,000 grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce to implement an automated license plate reader (ALPR) system to combat vehicle theft and other criminal activities.

At the Community Livability and Public Safety Committee meeting, Allen said the ALPR cameras from Flock Safety will be mounted at intersections throughout the Capital Mall Triangle area, Pacific Avenue, and Martin Way.

The cameras will scan license plates in real time, checking them against stolen vehicle databases. Officers will immediately receive an alert if a stolen vehicle is identified.

The system can also search for vehicles related to ongoing investigations.

Allen shared data showing increased car thefts in Olympia over the past five years. He said 303 car thefts were reported in 2023, a slight decrease compared to 2022 but still higher than the average typical of previous years.

95% of stolen cars were recovered

Allen added that out of 303 stolen vehicles, 27 were only attempts; that took the auto theft incidents down to 276; out of that number, 262 were recovered. On average, he said it takes the authorities three days to recover a stolen car in Olympia.

The police chief said they had recorded 364 auto theft incidents in 2022, 284 in 2021, 205 in 2020, and 209 in 2019. "Auto theft is still a concern for us as it is for the entire region."

Allen shared that when stolen vehicles were recovered and arrests were made, in 31 of those 276 incidents last year, police collected demographic details of those arrested.

The police chief noted that of the 31 arrests, approximately 44% of those apprehended were members of the Olympia community. “So more than half of the people that victimize our community are coming from out of the area.”

Allen also shared photos of crime incidents in the city where stolen cars were used for burglaries. He said perpetrators would typically arrive in a caravan of two or three cars. They would use the stolen car to ram into the businesses, then take whatever they wanted from inside before hopping into one or two waiting cars outside and fleeing the scene.

Focusing on prevention

The OPD Chief Rich Allen announced the plan to install automated license plate reader cameras in the Capital Triangle area, Pacific and Martin Way.
The OPD Chief Rich Allen announced the plan to install automated license plate reader cameras in the Capital Triangle area, Pacific and Martin Way.

According to Allen, OPD is focusing on prevention to address stolen cars. Some measures they have taken include passing the steering wheel locks, sharing tips on social media about keeping people's cars safe, arresting people at every chance, and trying to hold them accountable.

"I think we're doing good in this regard,” Allen said. “But, we need to find other avenues to help us address this issue because this issue is not going away."

Allen said they looked to technology to help them solve car thefts and the crimes committed with stolen cars. "If you look at the technology landscape, the one product that keeps popping up is automated license plate readers; specifically the kind of Flock Safety offers."

Automated license plate reader system

Allen explained that the system comprises cameras mounted on utility poles or traffic light intersections. They can take still images of passing vehicles, capturing details like the license plate number and vehicle descriptors such as make, model, color, and other identifying features.

The cameras automatically run the license plate numbers through law enforcement databases such as the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and then go through the Washington State Criminal Information Center (WASIC) to check if the vehicle has been reported stolen. If a match is found for a stolen vehicle, the system will immediately send an alert in real time to law enforcement computers and vehicles.

Additionally, the images and data from the cameras are stored in the cloud database for 30 days. The stored data can be searched by law enforcement using license plate numbers or vehicle descriptors to help locate cars associated with past criminal incidents.

Allen clarified that the license plate reader system includes no personal identifiable information or facial recognition feature. He said the system is not used for traffic enforcement.

Allen said the Flock camera serves as a deterrent to crime. He shared some testimonies from police departments from other jurisdictions with success stories in solving crimes with the help of the system.

Yakima installed the Flock system in 2022 assisting the police department in solving 11 homicides, 24 robberies, 52 police evasions, 56 weapon offenses, 78 hit and runs, and 392 stolen or retrieved vehicles.

Allen noted that the Yakima Police Department had a staffing crisis in 2023. "They were down 24 officers, and yet they had a 13% decrease in robberies and 26% decrease in property crimes. It was attributed to the Flock system."

In another example related to the use of this system, Allen cited the Chamblee, Georgia, police department, which reunited an abducted baby with its mother more than five hours after issuing an Amber Alert.

OPD's approach

Chief Allen explained that they needed to strategically place the automated license plate reader cameras, as they would need more money for city-wide coverage. OPD decided to concentrate the cameras in the Capital Mall Triangle area, focusing on high-traffic retail locations.

OPD also plans to put some cameras in Olympia's Eastside to monitor Pacific Avenue and Martin Way.

In determining where to place the automated license plate reader cameras, Allen explained that the police department created a heat map using their crime data to show areas with high criminal activity.

They combined this data with recommendations from the Flock Safety technicians to select camera locations they expect to have the most significant impact or "get the most bang for their buck."

Allen said he had spoken with the police chiefs of neighboring jurisdictions, Tumwater and Lacey, about implementing an automated license plate reader system.

Allen said Tumwater was further along in the process and seeking funds, while Lacey was at a similar stage.

Thurston County Sheriff Derek Sanders, Allen added, was using some of his department's funds to set up a license plate reader system for the county.

Allen expressed excitement about the potential for collaboration and sharing information regionally if multiple agencies in Thurston County deployed these camera systems.

Two-year contract

Through negotiations with Flock Safety, Allen said they can procure 16 cameras that would be covered over two years using the $100,000 grant money.

Allen compared this figure with the annual costs of their body camera program, which is about $160,000 per year just for hardware and data storage, without including additional staffing costs.


3 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • Claire

    Auto insurance rates have jumped exponentially lately, due to auto theft. Maybe this will be a deterrent.

    Saturday, March 2 Report this

  • MowJoe

    How many camera angles at each intersection? Just curious if a plate can be read from the 4 directions of travel?

    Sunday, March 3 Report this

  • JW

    This seems like a great program, but did they have to be so specific as to giving out the locations of the cameras? Now people could easily know what areas to dodge.

    Granted, in five years will anyone remember this article? Who knows, but it didn't seem necessary to divulge.

    Tuesday, March 5 Report this