WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (WAVY) – Cameras versus criminals – local police departments are turning to technology when it comes to fighting crime, speeding up an investigation by hours, if not, days.

Williamsburg, Newport News, Hampton, Suffolk, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake all use license plate readers. The cameras, which are strategically placed, take a photo of every license plate that passes through and saves that vehicle in a database for 30 days.

“We have over 20 cameras throughout the city covering the ins and outs as best as we can,” said investigator John Heilman of the Williamsburg Police Department.

To Heilman, license plate readers not only help recover stolen vehicles but have also solved homicides. The department installed the static readers in 2021 after a spike in larcenies.

“It’s been extremely advantageous for us. Normally we would have a team of investigators going out and chasing down leads about who the person is, where they could be going, looking at past biographical information, kind of a pattern of life and then having to do all these different follow-ups whereas if we can figure out what vehicle they’re in or a license plate, we can just go right to the software, type it in, the reason why we’re searching it and hopefully get a hit and just build off of that.,” Heilman explained.

The department has strategically placed 23 cameras along the city’s main thoroughfares and side roads. Using a technology called “Flock,” Heilman can check on each camera and see if there’s been a hit.

“Oftentimes there are crimes that are occurring in the city that we’re not aware of but this system can alert us to,” Heilman stated.

Heilman explained that the software only logs license plates and doesn’t record the person behind the wheel. After 30 days, that image is automatically deleted.

Information can be shared between jurisdictions and across state lines.

“It speeds up the process of us potentially locating a missing person, returning them to safety and alleviating the fears of their loved one. Up and down the peninsula and into Hampton Roads—we’ve seen a huge increase in jurisdictions using the ALPR technology,” Heilman said.

One of those neighboring jurisdictions is Newport News. Its police department uses license plate readers in conjunction with a real-time crime center.

“Everything is so technology-based now,” said Newport News police chief Steve Drew.

The city has stationary cameras set up along with license plate readers that give Newport News police officers a snapshot of what to expect before responding to a situation and allows them to take a peek into the moments leading up to a crime.

“When you have stuff with video footage or data or technology that allows us to do different things with that case, I think it makes for a much more successful prosecution. It’s certainly not just sitting in a room watching a camera. That’s not what it is about. Let’s go back 20-30 days, we had a robbery here. Is there anything that matches that description, the databases or files that we’ve saved,” Chief Drew stated.

Chief Drew tells 10 On Your Side policing with technology helps his department stay one step ahead of criminals.

“We have spent a lot of money on training our officers on technology. I think it’s the future and I hope this department is one of the leaders in the area in trying to make our community safer,” Chief Drew said.

The Williamsburg Police Department tells us this year they hope to add license plate readers on all of their squad cars. The city of Norfolk is also looking into license plate reader technology.

Check WAVY.com for the latest updates.