A breakthrough crime-fighting device or an invasion of privacy?
A pilot program for a new technology for reading license plates could help police officers in Española fight violent crime and robbery while barely lifting a finger. But the new tools also raise concerns about how much control is too much.
Española Police are in a testing phase for the use of automatic license plate reading cameras developed by Atlanta-based Flock Safety. The company describes itself as a “public safety operating system” and has customers nationwide, including 12 law enforcement agencies in New Mexico.
The aim of the program is to catch criminals and deter crime, said the police chief of Española, Roger Jimenez.
“The most important thing is that we can identify stolen vehicles or stolen license plates and hopefully deter violent crimes on any of these suspects who want to come in or claim Española as a safe haven for these crimes,” he said.
Flock Safety installs fixed cameras on 10-foot poles to take photos of license plates and vehicle details before uploading them to a database in the cloud, company spokeswoman Holly Beilin said.
Police can then use this database to get alerts about stolen vehicles and vehicles linked to previous crimes, or to capture the license plate of a vehicle that may have been involved in a crime, she said.
The database comes from the National Crime Information Center, an index of criminal justice information.
“Usually a criminal doesn’t use his own vehicle to commit other crimes,” said Jimenez. “Usually they steal a vehicle or a license plate and then commit these crimes.
“And that we can prevent that – or at least know that they are around with these cameras – is enormous for us,” he added.
Although Española Police are only on a 60-day pilot for about three weeks, officers are already seeing a “huge influx” of hits on stolen vehicles, Jimenez said.
Should his department decide to go ahead with a full contract, it would cost $ 2,500 per camera per year, Beilin said, which includes installation, maintenance, software updates and cloud storage.
But such tools are not without criticism.
Katie Hoeppner, spokeswoman for the New Mexico American Civil Liberties Union, said there are several red flags when it comes to the use of surveillance technology.
The Rhode Island ACLU raised several concerns with local governments planning to use Flock Safety technology. Their concerns included the program’s ability to look up vehicle details such as bumper stickers, the potential for expansion of this technology, and the lack of legal restrictions on the use of the cameras.
“We’re not just talking about passive surveillance here of where cars go by and maybe there is a flag in the system,” she said. “You can actually go in and input.”
Hoeppner said it was crucial to raise public awareness when these programs are in place.
Local civil rights attorney Joe Kennedy added that he was concerned about where the cameras might be placed, especially if those locations are not disclosed to the public.
“That would be my first concern … do you conduct police work in a way that affects minorities and people at the lower socio-economic levels?” Said Kennedy. “And the collection of that kind of data and the keeping and access to it by individual cops … creates all sorts of problems with how you use that information.”
The company is unaware of the security concerns of individuals who do not want such information to be easily accessible.
Once photos of license plates are uploaded, the police can download those that are needed for specific cases. But they only have 30 days before someone else’s pictures are automatically deleted, Beilin said.
Users are also required to enter a “search reason” when using the database proactively or reactively to a crime, she added.
“When it’s the reactive case and they’re looking for that drive-by shoot, they usually have a case number or they’re creating the specific case,” she said. “That is fully verifiable.”
Local government officials can also request the audit trail of these searches.
In addition, the company offers its customers the option of creating a transparency portal that pulls data about the program for a specific customer and creates a publicly accessible web page that can be viewed by the users. This free add-on is optional for customers only, noted Beilin.
“We have strong ethical guidelines on privacy … and we have built in features that enable police transparency and accountability,” she said.
Hoeppner said that while it is good that Flock Safety has these safety precautions in place, it is important that regulatory oversight establish such measures.
“There is so much potential for abuse in any surveillance technology,” she said.
Forty states and more than 1,000 law enforcement agencies are currently using Flock Safety technology to reduce crime rates in communities. Beilin said she could not disclose the other departments that Flock Safety works with in New Mexico.
Beilin said the effectiveness of the system varies between authorities, but claims some of the company’s customers have reported a drop in crime rates. An unnamed customer in California reported a 70 percent reduction in home burglaries, she added.
“The word of mouth results from other law enforcement agencies are very strong because they are actually seeing results,” she said. “They are actually seeing their case processing rates increase.”
Española police chief Jimenez said he hoped the department could get a grant to pay for the equipment and proceed with Flock Safety to install more cameras – and catch more criminals.