Fixed Automated License Plate Reader technology systems were recently installed in Macedonia and Northfield Village. Operated by Atlanta-based Flock Safety, the ALPR system gives police the ability to identify stolen vehicles and those owned by people wanted on felony warrants.

A surveillance system used across Cuyahoga County, other parts of Ohio and the United States has now been deployed in two northern Summit County communities.

Fixed Automated License Plate Reader technology systems were recently installed in Macedonia and Northfield Village. Operated by Atlanta-based Flock Safety, the ALPR system gives police the ability to identify stolen vehicles and those owned by people wanted on felony warrants.

But the cloud-based database of images the cameras capture can also be searched for vehicles with specific license plate numbers across multiple communities, and it can assist with missing persons cases and in AMBER Alert investigations.

The technology has already been in use in about two dozen other northern Ohio communities, primarily in Cuyahoga County.

Similar car-mounted units have been in common use for years, but the Flock system offers cloud-based, artificial intelligence-enhanced capabilities, combined with multi-jurisdictional networking.

Macedonia Police Chief Jon Golden recently explained the technology to city residents. He said the system’s primary function is to capture images of license plate numbers, which are then automatically compared with those on the National Crime Information Center’s database. Response times to queries come within a minute, and officers in their cruisers can access the information.

“If the plate comes back as stolen or the registered owner has a felony warrant, the information is sent back to the local jurisdiction via their MDTs [mobile data terminals, aka computers in cars] and the location that the image was captured,” Golden said. “Typically, when someone or a group of individuals drive into our city in a stolen vehicle they are here to commit crimes. With the camera system, as soon as they pass a camera we are notified and officers head to that area. Usually the vehicle is found and the subjects leave the area before they can commit any crimes.”

But the system isn’t limited to the national database. Police can also search the system’s database of images for general descriptions of vehicles. It will return images that match the search parameters, along with the dates, times and locations where the images were taken.

He stressed the system is not a traffic control camera, such as in Walton Hills.

Golden said the new investigative tool can help police identify vehicles suspected in crimes where only a general description is available.

“This system enables us to search the database by color, make, model, etc.,” Golden said. “Now, we can run a search and the system will list all the vehicles that meet those parameters entered.”

The images are saved for 30 days.

Police can also search the database for images taken by Flock cameras in other communities.

Most Flock cameras in Cuyahoga County

Locally, about “two dozen” police departments in the Cleveland area for License Plate Reader — mainly in Cuyahoga County — use the Flock System, according to company spokesperson Holly Beilin.

Other than Northfield Village and Macedonia, she declined to list the other communities tied in to the network, or which are planning to connect.

“We don’t name customers unless they have identified themselves publicly,” she said.

Akron and suburban towns including Cuyahoga Falls, Hudson, Tallmadge and Twinsburg, along with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, say they do not plan to install the cameras. Stow police said Flock Systems has given the department a demonstration, but the city has not made a commitment to the company.

While the Aurora Police Department in Portage County is not planning to install the cameras either, Aurora Police Chief Brian Byard said his department can query other departments, such as Flock users Bainbridge and Solon, for information via mutual aid agreements.

Chief Golden in Macedonia said that any searches on behalf of outside departments would have to be conducted by departments that are hosting Flock cameras.

Mentor police in July told local media that its 15 cameras helped officers make 33 arrests and find 13 stolen vehicles and one missing person with dementia in 2½ months.

In addition to Mentor, news reports show the cameras have also been installed in Dayton, Hunting Valley, Independence, Orange and Willoughby.

While Golden declined to state where the city’s six cameras are located, Northfield Police Lt. Brian Zajak said the department has two installed at the village’s northern and southern borders on Route 8.

Both chiefs said the department can access cameras connected to the Flock System in communities throughout the region. Zajak said the total number of available cameras is 187 in about a dozen other towns, accessible at higher levels in the department.

“There are some that have upwards of 30, 40 cameras throughout their communities,” he said.

Both Summit County chiefs say it’s too soon for officers on patrol to have been able to use the system to solve any crimes.

In Northfield, “they’ve only had the ability to use it for the last week in their cars,” Zajak said Tuesday.

How the system works

Flock Safety says its patented and trademarked “Vehicle Fingerprint” technology lets users search by “vehicle make, color, type, license plate, state of the license plate, missing plate, covered plate, paper plate, and unique vehicle details like roof racks, bumper stickers, and more.”

The system’s 5 megapixel cameras are leased for about $2,500 per year, and the company says they can capture license plate images from vehicles traveling up to 100 mph, day and night, up to 75 feet away. The still images cannot be used for speed enforcement, and the system does not employ facial recognition technology.

The cloud-based system can be accessed via desktop or mobile platforms.

The company says data will never be shared without permission, sold to third parties or used for unpaid fines, unauthorized viewing outside of a legitimate crime-related event, or kept in a library.

The footage is fully encrypted and stored in the cloud. All footage is deleted after 30 days on a rolling basis, unless a democratically elected governing body or official legislates a different retention period.

Privacy concerns

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio has in the past expressed concerns about the right to privacy with respect to such License Plate Reader technology.

“When can automated license plate readers be used and when can they not be used?” asked Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist with the ACLU of Ohio. “That is something that we would like to see established.”

He said the expectation of a right to privacy is significantly reduced when one is in public.

“If your neighbors can see you do it, why can’t the police see you?” he said.

However, Daniels noted advancements in technology is bringing new questions.

“The police didn’t have the resources to surveil someone 24/7 in the past. Right now, they do have the technology to do that to a lot of people, all the time,” he said.

Daniels said the “lack of control” over the technology, as well as other systems, has raised concerns about the availability of information to law enforcement from businesses and private entities such as homeowner associations that are also eligible to contract with Flock Systems.

“The courts are slowly catching up to this type of technology as an issue,” he said. “Essentially, the question is what type of privacy rights do you have in public?”

Local police say they rely on existing policies that reserve investigative resources for official use.

In Macedonia, Golden said unauthorized use of the Flock system is equivalent to misuse of the Law Enforcement Automated Data System, a repository of data shared statewide by police agencies. The LEADS database includes driving records, vehicle ownership, stolen property, missing persons, warrants and parole status of individuals, as well as driver’s license images, individual criminal histories and messages by law enforcement agencies.

While there is no codified penalty for misuse of automated license plate reader systems, misuse of the LEADS system is a felony.

Zajak said law enforcement already has access via warrants to other, even more intrusive technology, such as cellphone records, which can track a person’s whereabouts across the entire nation — and in real time.

He noted Flock Systems is “very firm” about its 30-day retention policy for images. The length of time images are retained has been an issue among those concerned with privacy rights.

“After that 30 days, it goes away … if you don’t have any reason to search for that type of vehicle in 30 days, why would you need it for 45 days or even a year later?” he said.

About Flock Safety

Founded in 2017 by Georgia Institute of Technology graduates Garrett Langley and Matt Feury, Flock Safety claims its proprietary devices and cloud-based software reduce crime by over 70%. The company says it has systems installed in more than 1,200 cities and serves more than 700 law enforcement agencies, in addition to private entities such as homeowners associations and businesses.

The company says its objective is to reduce crime in the United States by 25% in the next three years.

In July, the company announced it had received $150 million in new investment, for a total of $230 million since its founding.

“Four years ago, we started Flock Safety with a simple mission, to eliminate crime,” the company said in announcing the funding. “We knew it would take neighborhoods and businesses working together with law enforcement and city leaders if we truly were to solve this problem.

“We also launched our first product, the Flock Safety Falcon camera which combines license plate recognition and machine learning to deliver the objective leads law enforcement needs to solve crime. And the technology works, without bias, across every demographic in society.”

Source Beacon Journal

By Arsalan Ahmad

Arsalan Ahmad is a Research Engineer working on 2-D Materials, graduated from the Institute of Advanced Materials, Bahaudin Zakariya University Multan, Pakistan.LinkedIn: