Roll Call: Street camera systems the latest tool in effective policing

As vehicle thefts, carjackings, hit-and-runs and other major felony crimes rise in Chicago and the suburbs, you undoubtedly have seen or read stories about street camera systems.

In Chicago, there are Flock cameras, which are closed-circuit TV camera systems that originally were fixed units placed throughout major cities or suburban communities.

Area communities that have Flock camera systems installed include Berwyn, Burr Ridge, Cicero and Hillside. The most recent to venture into the street camera system is North Riverside.

It was long thought these cameras would only be fixed posts, but that is no longer true. Many agencies are buying the fixed-post camera system in addition to having them in their squad cars via their in-car computer systems.

When I refer to fixed post, what I mean is many communities put these Flock cameras at mall entrances, major intersections, entrances and exits to and from expressways and in shopping and entertainment districts.

Flock cameras have been installed in more than 1,400 cities across the U.S. and photograph more than a billion vehicles a year. Flock also has a partnership with body camera company Axon to provide mobile automated license plate reader devices for police vehicles. This is important because almost every police agency purchasing body cameras for its officers selects one of three major companies and Axon is the leader. To be able to partner with Axon is a huge plus for Flock because it drives law enforcement agencies toward their product with easy access and easy merger of the two.

The way the system works is the cameras, whether fixed post or in squads, are running every time the vehicle is moving. Fixed cameras are on all the time, recording license plates and vehicle information. In the case of Flock, they do not record the driver’s physical information. They run the license plates against the database locally or nationally. In most cases, both.

In Illinois, license plates are run against LEADS (Law Enforcement Agency Data System), which records stolen vehicles, vehicles wanted by police for felony crimes and information on the registered owner such as whether they have a suspended or revoked driver’s license or a warrant for their arrest.

Flock also runs license plates through NCIC (National Crime Information Center) and records all stolen vehicles nationwide (entered by law enforcement officers) in addition to any warrant issued nationwide for an individual who is put into this system. The system is robust and has aided many criminal apprehensions in Illinois and throughout the nation.

When I was chief in Riverside, we had a street camera system. While we did not purchase Flock, we had Griffon Systems Inc. In the first year after completing the install at major entrances to Riverside, we saw 12 out of 13 crimes resolved as a result of camera placement. We solved crimes from misdemeanor bike theft and hit-and-run personal injury all the way up to and including a shooting that had occurred on East Quincy Street and Harlem Avenue.

We solved crimes for other communities when criminals traveled from one town to another and were caught on our license plate reader systems. We were able to assist the other police agencies by providing information on the suspect’s vehicle.

Are there problems with Flock-type camera systems? Of course. No system available is 100% accurate. It has been reported that, at times, camera systems such as Flock can have a 90% accuracy rate.

The Flock camera system also uses what is called a searchable vehicle fingerprint. It is really an algorithm that gathers vehicle make, type, color, license plate and the license plate’s state. The fingerprint also records other details such as covered license plates, missing license plates or other unique features on the vehicle such as roof racks or bumper stickers. The information is stored and very helpful when police are looking for offending vehicles involved in serious felony crimes.

Of course, there is always the issue of privacy practices. The Supreme Court has said these camera systems are legal as long as they are pointed in the public way and record incidents that happen on the public way. That does not diminish the fact that many people do not like these cameras for privacy reasons.

Most street cameras hold data for 30 to 90 days for retention unless the video is flagged as part of an ongoing investigation. Flock cameras hold their video for 30 days. While many think it should be less, I am not a proponent. Police need to have information available for a minimum of 30 days in order to go back and reasonably search for things that could help solve serious felony crimes.

So how should communities and police agencies proceed? I would highly recommend that any municipality thinking of using Flock cameras or any other system follow some basic guidelines.

Research should be done in detail. The police chief should be requested to lay out a program in front of elected officials at an open board meeting detailing what type of system they want to purchase, the cost, ongoing costs, benefits and policies and procedures if approved by the municipal government.

The community and elected officials should be involved at every step of acquisition and policy development. Once policies are developed, they should be shared with elected officials and the community. Included in the chief’s report should be how many cameras are being purchased, where they will be located within the village on fixed posts and how many mobile systems are being purchased for police squads.

The chief and his command staff should write clear and legally justified policies and procedures. This part of the process can be assisted by the legal counsel of the municipality. There also should be standard protocol for how the information will be released and to whom. For example, if an outside law enforcement agency requests video from your municipality, you should have a policy on what is required to release that video to a separate agency.

I am a firm believer that if the department has clear direction, community support and solid policy and procedures surrounding their street camera program, they will be a huge asset to law enforcement and a success. Conversely, if any officer using Flock cameras or any other system is caught violating the rules or policies or using the system illegally or unethically, they should be fired. In the end, Flock cameras and other street camera systems will assist in arresting violent criminals throughout the nation.

For sure, many arrests nationwide would not have been possible without Flock-type camera systems.

  • Tom Weitzel was chief of the Riverside Police Department. Follow him @chiefweitzel.