New Jersey launches license plate cameras to combat soaring car theft rate

New Jersey will use $10 million in federal funds to install license plate readers along highways and on police cars in hopes of tracking down stolen vehicles.

Cars and trucks are visible driving northbound on the New Jersey turnpike on a sunny day.

File photo: Cars and trucks share the northbound lanes of the New Jersey Turnpike near Newark, N.J. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

New Jersey set a record in 2021 when more than 14,000 cars were stolen. So far this year, 37% more cars have been stolen compared to the same time last year.

“These stolen vehicles are not always, in fact, often are not isolated incidents,” said state Acting Attorney General Matt Platkin. “They’re increasingly linked to other serious crimes, in particular shootings.”

In an effort to recover more of those stolen vehicles, the state will use $10 million from the federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) State Fiscal Recovery Fund to install high-speed, automated camera systems to capture and store images of license plates. The cameras will be placed at fixed locations along major highways and on mobile units.

State Police Superintendent Col. Patrick Callahan called the cameras “game changing” for police investigating car thefts. “This investment will undoubtedly help combat the growing number of motor vehicle thefts and the associated rise in violent crime,” he said.

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State police will take the license plate images captured by the cameras and share them with other law enforcement in the state who are searching for stolen cars. The state is already using license plate reader technology to track vehicles used in other crimes. This move just expands that program to add cameras specifically looking for stolen cars.

The state is also changing its police pursuit policy to allow officers to chase stolen cars through the end of the year.

“Specifically, we will permit pursuits based on the commission of several additional crimes, notably car theft and receiving assault, receiving a stolen vehicle at least through the end of this year, when we will evaluate the impact of that policy change,” Platkin said. “These changes will give law enforcement the tools that they need to meet the moment and to protect our communities, while also being mindful of the inherent risks that come to officer safety and to the public when officers do engage in police pursuits.”

Gov. Phil Murphy said time is of the essence when trying to catch car thieves, and these changes are designed to help speed investigators as they do their work.

“When we invest in tools to help police do their jobs more effectively and efficiently, we invest in the safety of the families who call these communities home,” Murphy said. “We invest in securing their place in that community, and we invest in securing the high quality of life that is the hallmark of so many of New Jersey’s hometowns.”

Murphy said residents can also play a simple role in reducing car thefts: “Don’t leave your key fobs in the darn car,” he said. “All of us, please, lock the car.”

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