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Covina fights crime with automated license plate readers

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Sebastián Abdon Ibarra
LV Life Editor

Covina is among a handful of local cities to recently install automated license plate readers as a tool to solve grand theft auto cases and other crimes where the identification of license plates and other vehicle features is key.

San Dimas, Azusa and Ontario have also installed automated license plate readers.

One of the major companies that creates and sells this new technology is Flock Safety, which has provided the systems to Covina and other cities.

Covina Police Capt. Ric Walczak said the automated license plate readers went live in mid-January.

Flock cameras operate from a fixed position by capturing the vehicle fingerprint, which includes the make, model, color and license plate, with a timestamp. This information helps law enforcement track the vehicle’s last known location faster and could lead to more vehicle recoveries.

“It was another tool to help us, in the right circumstances, solve crimes,” Walczak said. 

Walczak said that the police department has begun to evaluate the impact the automated license plate readers have had on the city.

“In the first six to eight weeks, we’ve recovered probably 15 cars and made more than 20 arrests for grand theft auto,” Walczak said.

“That’s a metric you could use to say, ‘OK we recovered 15 cars that we might not have otherwise recovered.’ It’s definitely not the magic bullet that’s going to solve car theft, but hopefully it will help us reduce crime a little bit and helps victims get their cars back,” Walczak said.

Walczak acknowledged the potential dangers that a system like this could have on people’s privacy.

He said that they are always concerned with civil liberties and that was a significant part of the vetting process of choosing a company. The Covina Police Department and the city chose a company they believe takes those concerns into account. Walczak said that all data that is collected is deleted after 30 days.

Walczak said a system like this in the hands of the public sector would be subject to the same rules as law enforcement in regards to what type of data they would be able to use.

“You can always find a way to branch off of technology in the private sector and that is something that we would monitor,” Walczak said.

Walczak said officers are trained to verify any information on their own observations and use their common sense in order to mitigate the potential errors of the automated license plate readers in falsely flagging a license plate.

“It is just a tool, we tell our people and we train our people that. Just the same as if an officer would run a plate, we have to assume there is error there,” Walczak said.

Hailey Rodis, graduate student at the University of Nevada, is among the critics of automated license plate readers and similar types of tracking technologies. Rodis was the lead researcher on Scholars Under Surveillance, a blog post on the Electronic Frontier Foundation that covered how campus police used technology to monitor students.

Automated license plate readers can be used to track people wherever they go, so it is concerning to know that someone can follow you for no particular reason when you are not a criminal or person of interest,” Rodis said.

Rodis said automated license plate readers can be very useful in the aspect of finding people who have committed crimes, but notes her concerns for privacy are of higher importance. She said that the system has potential if reforms are made.

“License plate reform is necessary to be more upfront of why we are using automated license plate readers and what the real purpose is,” Rodis said. “Instead of just saying we are using it to find people who have committed a crime or stolen a car, saying we are using this and we are seeing people on this freeway at this time.”

Rodis said using this technology in more helpful ways would be more beneficial. For example, determining if extra lanes should be added to a freeway because there is more traffic during a certain time.

“We should be using this technology to improve society rather than just punish it,” Rodis said.

Flock Safety’s mission is to solve and eliminate crime, but at the same time keeping privacy at the forefront, said a company spokesman.

“We delete all data after 30 days and we do not sell or share data with third parties,” said Josh Miller, Flock Safety spokesman. “We want to make sure evidence captured with our cameras is objective. We only do license plates and cars. That evidence alone cannot solve crime but it can lead to a more thorough investigation.”

Miller said that Flock does not use facial recognition, and that they do not work with immigration enforcement, repossession or towing companies, traffic enforcement, speed enforcement, or unpaid fines. This is done to mitigate the risk that comes with the nature of their technology.

“We don’t believe these are necessary for our company to operate,” Miller said.

Miller said that Flock has a team of people who constantly tweak their algorithms in order to maintain and improve their accuracy. They encourage police departments to verify information whenever a hit is received.

“I want to say that we are above a 95-97% percentile in accurate matching and we strive to get it as high as possible,” Miller said.

Sebastián Abdon Ibarra can be reached at sebastian.ibarra@laverne.edu.

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