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New more powerful license plate cameras may soon be scanning Inland Northwest vehicles

Flock Safety cameras are solar powered automatic license plate readers that upload images to a searchable cloud database.
Courtesy of Flock Safety
Flock Safety cameras are solar powered automatic license plate readers that upload images to a searchable cloud database.

Law enforcement say they’re chronically understaffed, and need more tools to solve crime. Privacy experts say the model being explored – a partnership with tech company Flock Safety – will lead to information about innocent people being collected and stored.

Most law enforcement agencies in the Pacific Northwest already have access to automatic license plate readers, cameras that take photos of vehicle plates. The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office is considering new devices that take that capability a few steps further.

Under the proposed system, a vehicle’s make and color will also be captured and searchable, and all photographed plates will be automatically run through database for warrants and missing persons. All that information is stored in the Flock Safety cloud for 30 days. Law Enforcement can search for a description of a car, or specific plates.

The city of Yakima has already purchased these cameras in a widely publicized rollout. The first day the cameras were activated, police used them to find a man suspected in a child abduction and sexual abuse case.

Justin Elliott, a Lieutenant in the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, said the devices are a less-biased way of gathering evidence, and will lead to more vehicle crimes being solved.

“It’s like having an officer at each of these locations,” he said. “With our limited staffing, it’s a force multiplier to allow us to move to a real time crime center where we can use technology to leverage a better way of policing.”

He argues the cameras are more precise and less intrusive than sheriff’s deputies pulling drivers over looking for a suspect or stolen vehicle.

He said the sheriff’s office is looking at acquiring 30 to 80 of the devices, as well as other technology for their real-time crime center – a technology-focused intelligence center the sheriff’s department is launching.

Elliot said the proposal would likely come before Spokane County Commissioners in the form of a request for American Rescue Plan funds, which is federal money most local governments received to assist with COVID-19 recovery. The county has yet to allocate about $50 million of the $100 million it received.

Flock Safety is an Atlanta-based company that has already partnered with hundreds of law enforcement agencies. They also sell devices to private businesses, such as car dealerships or home ownership associations.

A spokesperson for the company, Holly Beilin, said Flock’s devices are not designed for traffic issues, such as scanning to see if a tab is expired, or immigration enforcement, and they do not use facial recognition software.

“It said nothing about the people in the car, you can't search based on race, gender, person, you can't search a brunette woman, nothing like that,” she said. “It's a red Jeep and this is the license plate. We think that's really important to making sure we're apprehending the right suspects that are committing most of the crime, and improving that unbiased aspect of policing.”

She says what police search for is also saved, and auditable if there are concerns about how the software is being used. She says data captured in Spokane County can be viewed by other police departments across the country, but only if local law enforcement chooses to share access.

Flock’s model has its critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which has said the technology has created a mass surveillance network.

Jennifer Lee is the Technology and Liberty Project Manager at ACLU Washington. She says Flock Safety’s rapid expansion has led to similar concerns privacy experts have about Amazon’s popular doorbell camera Ring. Both devices can capture daily movements in people’s lives and have long-standing relationships with law enforcement.

“That National Database is available to over 500 police departments and it just really amplifies the risk of abuse by government agencies and law enforcement,” Lee said, “Which of course exacerbates the issue of law enforcement targeting people not because they're suspected of criminal activity, but because of their political or religious beliefs or race. This kind of public, private surveillance really widens that surveillance network.”

Lee also said Flock’s data retention policy, which holds on to images for a month, is too long. She said it takes a few minutes to run a plate through databases, and if it doesn’t generate a hit, there’s no reason to keep the image.

“Any further retention would constitute unacceptable surveillance of the public and jeopardizes people’s rights and liberties,” Lee said.

Spokane County has already approved afranchise agreement with Flock Safety, which means the company is allowed to construct devices on the county’s right of way. But no formal contract has been approved yet.

Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said he believes the technology will help deputies solve crimes faster, and will only be used for things like recovering stolen vehicles or missing people.

However, he said if community members do have privacy concerns he is open to a discussion about the technology.

The cameras would likely be installed in unincorporated areas, and places where the county has law enforcement responsibility, such as Deer Park and Spokane Valley. The cities of Liberty Lake and Airway Heights have also had discussions with Flock Safety, according to public meeting materials.

Statewide, Flock Safety is working with about a dozen law enforcement agencies and around 18 businesses and neighborhoods. The company has about half a dozen clients in Oregon and is not yet operating in Idaho.

Flock Safety spokesperson Holly Beilin said the company sees the Pacific Northwest as its next area of expansion.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.