Automatic License Plate Readers Make Big Impact

The city of San Dimas purchased Flock Safety automated license plate reader cameras to support law enforcement in crime prevention. The cameras are located at undisclosed high-traffic intersections and can photograph 900 license plates per minute. Photo Courtesy: Flock Safety

By Kara Roa

The city of San Dimas has installed 10 automatic license plate reader (ALPR) cameras at high-traffic intersections, resulting in close to a million license plate images in the first week and a half.

The ALPRs were initially discussed at a San Dimas City Council meeting on Oct. 27, 2020. The council voted unanimously to approve the $27,500 purchase from an Atlanta-based company called Flock Safety that included a yearly subscription to both the hardware and software of the ALPR system.

During a city council meeting on March 9, City Manager Chris Constantin said the cameras have been active since Feb. 15 with most San Dimas Sheriff’s Station office staff trained by March 1.

Although the system is owned by the city of San Dimas, the sheriff’s station is allowed to access the system for law enforcement purposes.

San Dimas joins surrounding cities including Azusa, Covina and Walnut that have also opted to contract with Flock Safety to use ALPR cameras and technology to aid law enforcement.

How do ALPRs work?

Flock Safety has become popular in the San Gabriel Valley area because of its considerably low price point and its ability to provide law enforcement with more information than some competitors.

During the day Flock Safety cameras operate similarly to regular security cameras. They capture images of pedestrians, bicycles and dogs in addition to license plates.

At night the cameras use infrared technology to capture images and process information like license plate numbers and the makes and models of vehicles.

The cameras are solar-powered and use cellular networks to communicate with law enforcement officials. 

“The Flock cameras themselves have the ability to capture 900 plates per minute at a distance of up to 75 feet,” said Administrative Services Manager Michael O’Brien at the Oct. 27 council meeting.

Then-Captain Andy Berg described ALPRs as a strategic advantage.

“It’s like having 10 sets of eyes … in high traffic areas that could potentially catch their stolen car or a car that’s wanted for serious crime coming into the city,” Berg said.

The sheriff’s department said there are no plans to post locations of the cameras.

Every vehicle that travels past the ALPRs has a photo taken of it. The photo is stored for 30 days and footage encrypted, according to Flock Safety.

“As of now, we’ve had 987,000, almost 988,000 license plates that have gone through the cameras that have been recognized,” Constantin said during the March 9 meeting. 

Constantin added that, of the nearly one million vehicles scanned, 305 were flagged as stolen. Of those 305, 17 generated a hit in the Flock Safety system, which helped to solve nine missing vehicle cases. Of those nine cases, three led to vehicle recovery and arrests. 

Privacy concerns

“In any kind of digital visualization device, there’s definitely potential for error,” Andrew Ferguson said. “One of the problems that tends to come up in these automatic license readers is that even if there’s a match, they’re supposed to have protocols in place where a human being double checks it before you sort of just accept the automated sort-of hit.”

Ferguson is a Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law and the author of “The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law Enforcement.” 

Ferguson wrote an article in March 2021 discussing the problems that big cities have had regarding regulation of data from newer ALPR technology companies and how local cities are now facing similar questions regarding privacy and policing.

“Growing awareness over the dangers of policing technology should generate a collective response demanding not simply transparency, accountability and oversight, but also fundamental debates about police power,” Ferguson wrote.

While the California Legislature passed Senate Bill 34 establishing requirements for ALPR systems and privacy as of January 2016, a state audit conducted in February 2020 found that all audited agencies “have not implemented all of the requirements in that law.” 

The Los Angeles Police Department was one of the four agencies where “the handling and retention of ALPR images and associated data did not always follow practices that adequately consider an individual’s privacy.” 

The audit recognized the value of the stored images for law enforcement personnel. Yet, with only 400,000 of the 320 million images accumulated over several years, 99.9 percent of the ALPR images LAPD stored were not on a hot list at the time the image was made. 

Former Captain Berg assured the city council that Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies must report legitimate reasons to access data through queries at the city council meeting held on Oct. 27.

“When a user logs in, they must put in the reason for the search. They’re identifying information, acknowledging that the system is not being used for an improper purpose. … There is a built-in tracking system that keeps records of that data and those logins, as required by law,” Berg said.

The sheriff’s department currently has a privacy policy and field operations directive “to establish basic procedural guidelines and responsibilities of personnel and units utilizing the Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR) system.”

How is data used?

One major concern championed by the American Civil Liberties Union has been the use of ALPR cameras and databases for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As Flock Safety competitor Vigilant Solutions “hosts location information collected by law enforcement and private companies in a massive database called LEARN,” the ACLU claims ICE violates the Freedom of Information Act. 

“Together with time, date and location coordinates, the information is stored for years, generating a literal and intimate roadmap of people’s private lives,” claims the ACLU.

Flock Safety confirmed that its cameras do not use facial recognition software and describes its technology as “ethically-engineered.”

Josh Miller of Flock Safety emphasized that the accessed footage allows users to generate a “snapshot” that would be downloaded as evidence for law enforcement. 

“We do our best to adhere to local law and any evidence-related laws as well.  We don’t capture any personally identifiable information. We don’t sell or share data to third-parties nor immigration enforcement.”

Live “vehicle fingerprints” identified by Flock Safety ALPRs “capture make, model, color, whole or partial license plates, state of license, and time stamp,” says Miller. 

All data is owned by users and deleted off the Flock Safety cloud system following 30 days. However, Miller states that a “snapshot” connected to a crime may be uploaded by law enforcement agencies to the National Crime Information Center hotlist, a database of information available to federal, state and local law enforcement and other criminal justice agencies for a longer period of time.  

During the October city council meeting, Councilmember Ryan Vienna questioned the ALPR’s ability to aide against terrorism threats presented with the introduction of a mass transit station like the Gold Line.

Flock Safety stated that the cameras and footage have yet to be cited in stopping terrorism.

Future of neighborhood watch?

Private communities and homeowners associations are also able to buy Flock ALPR cameras for private use — a popular option at $2,500 per camera  as suggested by Flock Safety. 

A “SafeList” would allow residents to register license plates and “quickly separate out who lives in the neighborhood and who doesn’t,” claims Flock Safety.

An associated vehicle involved in a crime such as a “porch-pirate crime” would be helpful downloadable evidence states Miller. 

Former Captain Berg stated that footage captured would be an “investigative tool.” 

“The system was originally designed for HOA’s and has since moved into a ‘safety’ application to assist law enforcement. The use in HOA’s has a benefit from posting signage letting people know the area is being watched by these cameras. There is no benefit for law enforcement posting the information,” said San Dimas Sheriff’s Sergeant Robert Long in an email.

Local law enforcement continued to clarify that the Flock cameras are not live footage cameras. “They only take pictures of the vehicle and license plate and report to the user if the car is stolen or wanted for a felony,” said Long.

Risk and reward

Flock Safety claims that in a study conducted by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, its ALPRs produced 30% more accurate reads than the competition. 

Berg described the use of the Flock system as having value in both catching stolen cars and assisting in solving more serious crimes.

“It’s great to catch a stolen car while it’s rolling down the street … But as an investigating tool, it would be a big asset,” said Berg.

Ferguson warns that while systems are often accurate, there is always a risk or error that could lead to a violation of rights.

“There is always a risk of error in the system, and it is, you know, one of those cost/benefits. Are we okay with the vast majority of situations where it will collect information accurately? There may be some errors. … Someone has to, you know, weigh that balance and say, ‘What are we okay with?’” 

Disclaimer: Isabel Ebiner, managing editor for the San Dimas Community Post and daughter-in-law of Councilmember John Ebiner, edited this story for AP Style.

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