The colorful registration stickers in the corner of Pennsylvania license plates, a tool area police officers say is invaluable while on patrol, will be phased out next year as part of a modest cost-saving measure for the state.
The plate stickers, which cost 10 cents each, will no longer be issued beginning in January because of a little-known provision buried in a 2013 transportation bill the state Department of Transportation believes will save about $1.1 million annually as it tries to modernize the vehicle registration process.
Police departments are pushing back against the measure over concerns it will leave officers on patrol without the ability to immediately know if a car is registered or other underlying problems.
Instead, PennDOT is now pushing for police departments to use electronic license plate readers that automatically scan vehicles and instantly notify an officer in a patrol car of myriad issues that can show if a vehicle is stolen or has a suspended registration.
“It’s another tool, but it’s not essential when the sticker is eliminated,” said Kurt Myers, PennDOT deputy secretary for Driver and Vehicle Services. “There are other tools in the toolbox. We don’t have expectations everybody will be ready and able to purchase that right away. It would be over a period of time.”
During a news conference two months ago in Harrisburg, PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards hailed the license plate reader technology, widely used in other states for years, as the best way for police to locate stolen cars or detect vehicles with suspended or expired registrations.
The biggest problem with the equipment, however, is cost.
At $18,000 per unit, license plate readers are too costly to be installed in every patrol car. Pennsylvania State Police alone have 1,300 patrol cars in their fleet, according to department statistics, meaning it would cost $11.7 million to outfit half of the agency’s police cruisers with the technology.
State police have just 15 plate readers in use across the state, according to Trooper Adam Reed, a spokesman at the department’s headquarters in Harrisburg.
Myers said PennDOT is pushing state Legislature to launch a grant program to use the $1.1 million savings from eliminating the stickers to help local police departments purchase the readers. But that would pay for just 55 units each year. There are more than 1,100 local police departments in the state, according to U.S. Justice Department statistics.
“Plate readers are not essential,” Myers said. “There are other (ways) to access that information.”
Police in Washington and Greene counties are skeptical.
North Strabane Township police purchased two LPRs in 2012 and they’ve been a great asset for the department, township Lt. Kris Wagstaff said. But the three cameras attached to the light bar and computer hardware are not portable, so it leaves the department’s other nine cars without the capability. That’s fine, Wagstaff said, because officers are still able to look for the registration stickers and make stops that sometimes lead to arrests for drugs or drunken driving.
“Absolutely, the No. 1 tool is the visual inspection of the license plate (registration stickers), especially in an area where we work with a heavy traffic volume,” Wagstaff said. “You have to be selective and having the ability to do a quick visual inspection of the license plate is so vital. It’s such an elementary issue.”
It would cost about $200,000 to install readers in every vehicle at North Strabane, and that does not include the $1,500 annual maintenance fee per unit after the service agreement expires.
That’s a hefty sum even for North Strabane, which receives local share gaming money because it’s the host community for The Meadows Casino.
The technology is cost-prohibitive for smaller police departments, such as Waynesburg, where police Chief Rob Toth said the loss of the registration sticker will hamper their ability to make stops that can sometimes be “stepping stones” to more serious violations.
“It’s a tool we use and one we use daily. It’s the first thing we look at (on patrol),” Toth said. “Are we going to have to run every plate?”
Charleroi Regional police Chief Eric Porter said his department purchased an LPR when the department consolidated with neighboring boroughs in 2012. He said it supplements their patrol abilities but doesn’t replace visual inspections.
“Will the state fund it? It’s not cheap,” Porter said. “It’s great to have when it’s up and running.”
Myers pointed to New Jersey as a model for the legislation after it removed the stickers a decade ago. New Jersey State Police officials and New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police declined comment on what effect the loss of registration stickers had on law enforcement there.
The changes in Pennsylvania were wrapped into a larger transportation bill known as Act 89 of 2013 that lifted the oil franchise tax on gasoline that effectively raises prices at the pump to help pay for infrastructure projects. But it also modernized other parts of PennDOT’s registration process and allows people to apply each year online and print their vehicle registration information at home, thus saving the state another $2 million, Myers said.
State legislators are raising concerns about the changes and are already moving ahead with plans to restore the registration stickers.
“Are we really saving money and are we taking tools away from local law enforcement to make sure cars on the road are safe?” said state Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-North Strabane.
State Rep. Dom Costa, D-Pittsburgh, pushed through House Bill 1154 to restore the stickers after hearing numerous complaints from statewide police associations and local departments. He called the removal of the stickers in Act 89 an “ unintentional error on our part” that needs to be fixed.
“They made it a money issue,” Costa said of PennDOT’s push to remove the stickers. “This isn’t about money. It’s about public safety with us.”
He cited state statistics from 2009 and 2010 that showed police across the state wrote 250,000 citations during those two years for expired stickers.
Costa’s bill passed the House last year and is awaiting a vote in the state Senate for final passage.
Myers said PennDOT opposes the bill because it will negate cost savings and disrupt other innovative features to modernize the registration process for drivers. The online registration would continue, but the department would mail registration papers since it would have to send the stickers anyway.
The department also would need to immediately reorder millions of stickers before next year, he said.
“We’re sensitive to law enforcement,” he said. “Some, not all, but some like the registration stickers. We also have a responsibility to citizens of the commonwealth that we’re doing things that are efficient and effective in reducing our costs while at the same time making and renewing the registration more convenient for our customers.”
For now, police departments across the state are waiting to find out if and how they’ll have to change their tactics while out on patrol.
Wagstaff thinks it will take years before license plate readers are affordable enough for widespread use.
“If there was a better way to do this, I’m all for it,” Wagstaff said. “LPRs are not common technology and not to the extent they can replace good, old-fashioned police work. I just don’t see it.”