By Helen Tomlin News Review Staff Writer–
A town hall meeting was held last Tuesday night to discuss the possibility of the Ridgecrest Police Department’s (RPD’s) use of license plate readers (LPRs). Sergeant Bill Groves walked the audience through a PowerPoint presentation that explained the need, services, safety, and cost of a popular LPR technology called “Flock Safety.” Hector, a spokesman for the company, was virtually available for questions from the audience. The members of the City Council were present, along with a few citizens who had questions and/or objections to law enforcement’s use of the technology.
According to Groves, Ridgecrest needs these LPRs because the number of stolen vehicles in the city has increased. In 2019, the RPD received 48 reports with 11 arrests. These automobile thefts have steadily climbed since then with no sign of relief. By last year’s end, the number of reports grew to 77, with 20 arrests. These past four years, statistics show a little over 60 percent increase in stolen cars. With only nine days of statistics available for this new year, Groves said nine auto thefts have already been reported.
In addition to increased car thefts, Groves gave specific examples of how recent local thefts could have been aided by LPR technology. One was a robbery that occurred at Stop Market. There were several instances of the suspect and his car captured on video surveillance, but his license plate was never detected. This scenario was repeated when the RPD investigated several commercial robberies in town and a theft from a residence that totaled $120,000 of stolen items. In each of these cases, the investigating detectives learned what the suspects looked like and what car they drove with the aid of security camera footage. Still, none of those cameras gave any license plate information. Groves said these LPDs would “basically help us do our jobs better.”
The RPD has looked at Flock Safety for a variety of reasons. The company offers a network of cameras they install on the city’s existing structures, such as cell phone towers or traffic lights. They can also be mounted to buildings. But if the RPD needs a camera in a place where it cannot be attached to an existing structure, Flock will erect custom poles in order to position the cameras.
The company boasts of offering an “end-to-end partnership” that takes care of permitting, installation, maintenance, and training. The support will continue if the cameras need additional repairs and monitoring or if the officers need customer support.
After the cameras are in place, their job is to recognize license plates and the makes and models of cars. From that information, the technology gathers objective evidence and facts about the passing vehicles. Even if the cars are missing license plates or have temporary plates, the camera identifies the frequency at which the car passes, unique alterations of the vehicle, or damage, such as a dented fender.
Groves said Flock’s technology is the “most widely adopted solution for crime reduction.” Over 1000 agencies have signed with them in the past 18 months, with a 195 percent police retention rate. At least 273 major cities already use it. Many of the surrounding cities, such as Lancaster/Palmdale, Bakersfield, and Lone Pine, are current customers. Groves said, “Pretty much everywhere you go, you’re going to be on somebody’s Flock Safety.”
Groves emphasized this system protects people’s privacy. He said the cameras are not designed for facial recognition or any other individual identifiers. He said all the footage gathered would be owned and kept by RPD and then automatically deleted and “unrecoverable” after 30 days if “not associated with a crime.” He also said the data is stored securely in the Amazon Cloud with “end-to-end encryption of all data.” They also are not used for traffic enforcement and data gathering. Groves said, “This is not Placer.ai.”
A subscription costs $3,000 per camera per year. Each Falcon camera comes with an automatic LPR, solar or DC power, mounting equipment, and maintenance. Besides the camera, the subscription also includes cloud hosting and LTE connectivity, unlimited user licenses, hotlist integration and alerts (such as Amber alerts), and ongoing software enhancements. There is a one-time camera implementation of $650 for each camera.
A question and answer period was offered at the end of the presentation. A man asked how many cameras the RPD desired. Groves said, “Two would be good, but 20 would be better.” With 20 cameras, he said they could “cast a net, create a good grid.”
A man asked who looks at the data? Hector answered, “No one looks at the data.” He said all data is owned solely by Ridgecrest’s RPD.
Asked about the camera’s ability to do their work at night, Groves said the cameras are equipped with infrared technology, so darkness is not a problem.
Another audience member did the math. He calculated the cost of 20 cameras is $60,000 per year, so why not just hire more officers? Groves told him that amount of money would only cover one-third of an officer’s salary while RPDs “save hundreds of man hours.”
Mike Neel, a frequent commenter at city meetings, said this technology is “a liberty nightmare.” He said the police department would repeatedly say, “We need to expand this.” Then he predicted: “And then five years down the line, cameras will be everywhere.”
A second town hall meeting on this topic will be held on January 24 at 6 pm. No decisions will be made until this goes before a vote at a future City Council meeting. The council’s next meeting will be Wednesday, January 25 at 6 pm.