The latest upgrades in automated license plate readers, proponents say, are efficient tools that aid law enforcement in several ways, including information sharing. They help prevent crimes and, one city manager said, “This is merely using technology to fulfill our responsibility to the safety of residents.”
Opponents counter that the police cameras lack legislative oversight, and local governments approve them without ample public debate. The “mass surveillance” systems, one local critic said, can infringe on the privacy and civil liberties of innocent people while recording data vulnerable to abuse.
Local communities are near evenly split on the technology’s use, an analysis of a recent Dayton Daily News’ survey found.
Eight of the 20 responding communities in Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties said they have either installed or approved automated license plate readers from Atlanta-based Flock Safety.
Flock’s plate readers have grown in popularity since the business started in 2017 and are spreading across Ohio. Beavercreek, Centerville, Kettering and Springboro have all contracted for the stationary camera units.
Nine other communities — including Fairborn, Lebanon, Oakwood and Troy — said they have no plans to consider the devices, survey results showed.
Dayton, Miamisburg and Riverside said they haven’t decided. Moraine bought five cameras in 2014, three years before Flock’s founding.
Flock, a business that touts 1,200 law enforcement agency partners, has “pretty drastically improved on the technology in a number of ways,” a company spokeswoman said.
More cams coming
Springboro has 15 and Miami Twp. has eight, while Beavercreek, Centerville, Kettering and West Carrollton police plan to install more than two dozen combined this spring, officials said.
“The cameras send a real-time alert to law enforcement when a stolen car or known wanted suspect from a state or national crime database enters the city,” Centerville Officer John Davis said in the survey.
He noted they can also send alerts if a vehicle linked with a missing person in an AMBER or SILVER Alert is detected.
Franklin Police Chief Adam Colon said since his division contracted for 11 cameras in September, “numerous felony investigations have been solved with the help of the system.”
They are used in specific investigations — not in routine traffic stops, red-light violations, immigration enforcement, for racial profiling or facial recognition, officials said.
Dayton had a Flock pilot program where one neighborhood saw crime drop by more than 33%, according to data. The city has been approached about using the technology by businesses in Old North Dayton, as well as along Stanley Avenue and Wagner Ford Road, records show.
“The businesses have been greatly affected by illegal drag racing,” according to a police department impact report. “The drag racers are a danger to the community and have caused extensive property damage to many of these businesses.”
Since last summer, at least seven communities in the Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus areas have contracted with Flock, according to news reports.
Technology and privacy
Flock’s automated license readers offer lightweight, motion-activated, solar-powered cameras on a lease basis, company spokeswoman Holly Beilin said.
The system’s cloud-based software allows law enforcement to search through recorded pictures by vehicle make, color, type, license plate, state and other unique details.
The charge per unit ranges from about $2,000 to $2,500 annually, Beilin said. Communities contracting with Flock that responded to the Dayton Daily News survey indicated similar prices.
The business handles maintenance, digital storage, software updates and can replace cameras with the latest models, she said.
The cameras use the same technology as cell phones to transmit footage, which is owned by the contracting jurisdiction, as is the data, Beilin said.
The license plate readers don’t have facial recognition ability, Flock doesn’t share the data with third parties and all devices have automatic data deletion after 30 days, she said.
“We understand that privacy is very important,” and “we don’t think that data needs to be held indefinitely,” she added.
“Thirty days is plenty of time for a detective to investigate a crime … and download any footage that is associated with a crime that they might need,” Beilin added.
Thirty days is “a fairly arbitrary number,” said Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio
“We advise with law enforcement to get rid of the data you don’t need as soon as you can so privacy concerns are kept to a minimum,” he said.
Privacy was a main concern for Kettering resident Sterling Abernathy when that city voted for a Flock contract.
He told Kettering City Council last month it was approving a “mass surveillance technology that photographs and identifies every vehicle passing by,” including “the movements of millions of ordinary people, even though the overwhelming majority are not connected to a crime.”
Kettering has other license plate cameras, but Flock’s are more efficient, Police Chief Chip Protsman said.
The council unanimously approved the cameras after putting the issue on hold for a few weeks to address their questions. Their use will be reviewed later this year, Councilwoman Jyl Hall said.
“Hopefully (a) six-month review will see that this does reduce crime and hopefully reduce costs,” she said.
Protsman and other officials in cities that have contracted with Flock said they have policies and procedures to deter abuse of the system. Users are required to input case numbers or codes to retrieve data, and those entries are audited by management, officials said.
But “policies don’t cut it,” Daniels said. “A policy doesn’t have the force of law.”
More public debate
Ohio lacks legislation that outlines the use of automated license plate readers and their captured data, Daniels said.
“There is a real gap, let’s say, with regard to privacy knowledge and privacy ramifications in government surveillance at our Statehouse and there has been for many years,” he said.
In lieu of state oversight, localities using the technology should regulate it with their own legislation, he added.
“Whether it’s a statewide or local law, we need some sort of parameters out there,” Daniels said.
Additionally, more time is needed for public scrutiny before contract decisions are made, critics said.
Kettering’s Abernathy said council should have “formally notified citizens, describing the technology, how and where the system and data are used and how privacy and civil liberty risks will be addressed.”
Daniels expressed similar thoughts. Ohio communities are adopting this technology “at this point really on a weekly basis with no buy-in or notice from the community,” he said.
Discussions “about how this could potentially violate privacy, (how) it might not violate privacy, what the uses are for” are needed, Daniels said. “But in so many communities those conversations don’t take place.”
The automated license plate readers are the topic of a Dayton City Commission public hearing April 20. Police have a contract with Axon for mobile video recorders to be installed in cruisers this year, records show.
Dayton had an ALPR 2020 pilot program in the Twin Towers and Walnut Hills neighborhoods that resulted in drops in crime of 43% and 10% in those areas, respectively, data shows.
If approved, the devices would be used in specific, requested areas where “the crime statistics justify the use” as part of a neighborhood safety plan, according to police.
Staff Writers London Bishop, Nancy Bowman, Ed Richter and Eric Schwartzberg contributed to this report.
Flock Safety’s automatic license plate readers are becoming more popular for police in Ohio. Respondents to a recent Dayton Daily News’ survey showed area communities found the following:
•Approved or installed Flock license plate readers: Beavercreek, Centerville, Franklin, Kettering, Miami Twp., Springboro, Vandalia and West Carrollton.
•Not considering Flock license plate readers: Bellbrook, Carlisle, Clearcreek Twp., Fairborn, Lebanon, Oakwood, Piqua, Troy and Waynesville.
•Undecided: Dayton, Miamisburg and Riverside.