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FOCUS ON LICENSE PLATE READERS: Flock debate rages

Staff illustration / Nolan Alexander

Law enforcement officials hail automated license plate readers as an important tool in fighting crime, but the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio is concerned the technology can be used to target people — particularly without laws in place.

A number of Mahoning Valley communities have discussed purchasing the license plate readers from Flock Safety, an Atlanta company founded in 2017 that has grown quickly over the past two years.

The company provides the readers to more than 130 law enforcement agencies in Ohio, including those in Canfield and Niles.

Those that join Flock have access to all the cameras in other communities also on the system.

The high-speed, computer-controlled, motion-activated camera systems typically are mounted on metal poles with a solar panel on top. They capture photographs of cars and their license plates, and those images are used to assist in solving crimes or for Amber Alerts through a searchable database.

“There’s absolutely a concern about privacy with license plate readers,” said Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the ACLU of Ohio. “They could be used to track our movements. If someone wanted to follow you to a house of worship or a political meeting or protest or to a medical facility, what stops them? It’s highly irresponsible to adopt the use of these with no protections in place.”

Except for Dayton and Yellow Springs, no other community in Ohio that has the readers has a law in place regarding how they are used, Daniels said. In communities that do not have regulatory laws, it is up to individual law enforcement agencies to adopt policies on the use of readers.

The ACLU has called for the Ohio Legislature to pass a law on the readers for years, but none has been approved.

“A statewide law is the best option,” Daniels said. “We want commonsense statewide laws to determine what can be used, how to keep data and who keeps it. We only have internal law enforcement policies now. It’s highly irresponsible to use technology to watch people who are doing nothing wrong and to do it without laws in place. There are policies in place, but not laws.”

FLOCK

Flock takes seriously its privacy policies, Holly Beilin, its spokeswoman, said.

Flock stores footage for 30 days and then has it deleted from its system on a rotating basis, she said. When looking for footage or other evidence, law enforcement agencies must enter a reason code into the system to verify the legitimacy of the search, Beilin said. That also creates an audit trail so usage can be tracked, she said.

“You can’t just pick everything from April 1,” Beilin said. “You have to say a burglary between 1 and 3 a.m. in a white Jeep. There’s search justification. They put in their parameters and they can download it. They can’t mass download footage.”

But police departments “can keep the downloaded footage for however long they want,” she said. “We recommend they have their own policy.”

Beilin said her company has grown so quickly because of the high ethical standards it requires.

“They can’t be used for repossession or insurance violations,” she said. “We take seriously the privacy factor.”

Regarding ACLU concerns, Beilin said: “We completely understand their purpose and respect them. We also understand the purpose of law enforcement and respect them. We’ve found a balance between the two.”

Flock charges $2,500 per camera plus a $250 one-time installation fee. The annual fee includes software licensing and Flock will take care of maintenance, repairs and replacements.

The Flock cameras are part of a central database and within seconds they alert law enforcement if a vehicle connected to a wanted criminal or missing person shows up in the system.

Flock also sells the technology to homeowner associations as well as to schools and “certain commercial entities like hospital campuses, retail establishments and chambers of commerce,” Beilin said.

“These entities are all subject to the same data security, privacy and auditing capabilities as public-owned cameras,” she said. “It’s important to note that these entities are also offered different, less functionality than law enforcement. An HOA cannot, for example, receive alerts on stolen vehicles, but if they share their camera access with their local police department, that agency can.”

In Ohio, there are three university police departments with Flock cameras and one school district, Beilin said.

That school district is Niles.

CANFIELD

The city of Canfield’s police department has 14 license plate readers that were installed about a month ago, said Chief Chuck Colucci.

“We need them because it’s our job to make sure our community is as safe as possible,” he said. “We’ve had car break-ins in the city and countywide for the past few decades. This helps us see who’s coming and going during the times” of break-ins.

A case of a stolen car was solved in Canfield using readers in Niles, he said.

Also, the car of a suspect in a double murder in Lowellville in November was caught on a Flock camera, Colucci said. The suspect committed suicide in Parma in the vehicle during a standoff with police there.

If there is a “crime of interest” or one that is unsolved, Canfield police download photos related to them and “could hold on to it in perpetuity,” Colucci said.

But like Law Enforcement Automated Data System (LEADS) and the Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway (OHLEG), strict compliance policies are in place to protect the information gathered from Flock cameras, Colucci said.

Canfield police Sgt. Josh Wells said Flock requires a reason for a search, which will stop an officer from using the system randomly as the department can determine who did every search.

Colucci said years ago the department had an officer who abused one of the other systems and was fired.

“It’s treated seriously by the department,” he said. “We went with Flock because they have the reason code. If someone does decide to go rogue, it’s going to be shut down.”

Footage downloaded from Flock could become a public record, Colucci said, if it is “redacted and not part of a case.”

Colucci said of Flock’s technology: “It is fascinating. The volume of cars is overwhelming. We’ve seen tools like this before. Plate readers were in place, but they were costly and they were clunky. It was a decade or two ago that we’ve had license plate readers, and I wasn’t sold on the technology. But this system makes sense for us.”

Colucci said he expects other police departments to start using the readers.

“We’re not looking to violate people’s privacy,” he said. “We’re looking to protect the public. There’s security measures in place to hold police accountable for their actions. We treat it the same as the other databases.”

NILES

Niles police Chief Jay Holland said his officers still have to verify the information before making a traffic stop or interacting with an individual. He said technology is not foolproof. For example, a Flock camera may read a license plate as ABC123, when it really reads ABO123.

Flock cameras are stationed at 21 locations in Niles, most of which are at entrance points to the city. Holland said included in that number are three cameras by the Eastwood Mall that the Cafaro Company pays for, and five that Niles City Schools owns on a separate system.

From Jan. 2 to Jan. 30, Holland said the cameras in Niles logged 1.916 million plate reads.

Niles also can access all Flock cameras around the state, so it can search data from the cameras on school property, even though they are on a different system. Police departments also can request access to cameras from other parts of the country. Currently Niles has access to the data from 1,092 cameras, almost all of which are in-state.

Holland said the biggest misconceptions people have about the cameras are that they are constantly running people’s plates and that they are used to track people’s whereabouts.

While individual officers can run plates through LEADS and get a host of information on the person it is registered to, Flock cameras do not pull nearly as much data.

“We’re not tracking you,” Holland said. “We have an auditing tool so I can see which officers are running which plates and for what reason.”

The Niles Police Department has a policy, part of which states that the “use of (license plate reader) systems is restricted to public-safety related missions of this agency.”

Holland said the entire policy was adapted from a recommended best practices policy put out by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

The software also gives police the ability to enter their own “hot plates.” Holland said this can be used to keep an eye on known drug dealers, frequent shoplifters and others.

For example, Holland said there was an individual who would shoplift from CVS every few days. One of the times he did, a CVS employee got the license plate so Niles police entered it as a “hot plate.” The next time it entered the city, police went to the CVS and caught the person shoplifting again.

The Niles Police Department was the first in the Mahoning Valley to get Flock cameras. Holland said the software went online Aug. 10, 2022.

Holland said Flock came to do a demonstration for the department, and he was impressed. So he took the idea to Mayor Steve Mientkiewicz, who Holland said was on board.

Holland said the cameras have been a huge help to the department. He keeps a folder packed with success stories that is about an inch thick. Among these successes are the finding of 12 stolen vehicles and two missing people.

“I think this is the biggest technological advancement in law enforcement since body cameras,” Holland said. “Other than funding restrictions, I don’t see why any department wouldn’t want to have these cameras.”

Holland said he thinks the price is well worth it. He said it’s like having a police officer at every entrance to the city taking photos of every car that goes by 24/7 — but the department doesn’t have to pay or provide breaks to added personnel.

Because Niles, and the Mahoning Valley in general, is a car-dependent community, Holland said most crimes that are committed involve a vehicle. That means that some part of the crime involves a vehicle, whether that means it is a vehicle break-in, the crime is committed from a vehicle or a vehicle is used to get to and from the scene of the crime.

ISSUES

Marc Dann, former Ohio attorney general, said he has issues with cameras replacing police officers.

“My historic problem with this type of technology is it deters police involvement in law enforcement,” he said. “It takes officers off of law enforcement.”

An officer pulling over a vehicle for a minor violation might come across a motorist or passenger wanted for a more serious crime, he said.

Dann was the lead attorney on a class-action lawsuit when more than 7,700 motorists driving on a section of Interstate 80 in Girard were cited and billed for speeding as cameras were set for a construction zone of 55 mph when the construction had finished and the regular 65 mph limit was in place

Regarding license plate readers, Dann said: “There isn’t anything that makes them unconstitutional. Your license plate is designed to be seen so you don’t have a right to privacy. Technology continues to challenge our thought on privacy, but it’s not unconstitutional. You shouldn’t expect to have the right to privacy in a public area.”

dskolnick@vindy.com

escott@tribtoday.com

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