Lake in the Hills to get license plate readers, despite ‘Orwellian vibe’

Other municipalities including Woodstock and Huntley have the readers

A Flock Safety license plate reader near at the intersection of Route 14 and Lily Pond Road in Woodstock.

License plate readers will soon be coming to Lake in the Hills after the village board unanimously voted to approve them, despite some questions about their use.

Lake in the Hills is the latest McHenry County municipality to adopt the readers, which take photos of license plates as cars drive by, and village documents indicate the readers also capture cars’ make, model and color. Woodstock and McHenry are among the others who have installed them.

Officials in communities that have the technology said they’ll use the readers in a way that protects privacy, but residents and civil liberties advocates have expressed skepticism that they’ll actually do so, according to previous Northwest Herald reporting. A new state law that went into effect Jan. 1 says that “interstate agreements” regarding license plate readers can’t use the technology on people coming to Illinois for abortions, according to the Associated Press.

Woodstock has had the readers since 2022 and police Chief John Lieb told attendees at last year’s State of the City luncheon that the readers are to address a “trend” of people coming to Woodstock to commit crimes. Lieb told the Northwest Herald earlier in 2023 that people who venture out in public are often in areas surveilled by cameras – in fact, the Woodstock City Council recently voted to install surveillance cameras at Woodstock Square to improve public safety – and the license plate readers readers aren’t different from that.

McHenry officials said last year they had protocols in place to prevent officers from abusing the system and said they hadn’t received any complaints about the plate readers.

Huntley trustees approved automatic license plate readers last year, and officials said the benefits of the readers include helping police find missing people and solving crimes.

Atlanta-based Flock Safety, the company behind many local municipalities’ automatic license plate recognition systems, gave the Lake in the Hills Police Department free access to its database starting in 2022, Deputy Chief Matt Mannino told the Village Board last week. Mannino said that Flock Safety originally hadn’t put a stipulation on how long the village could access the Flock database for free, but came back in late 2023 with a request to install cameras or pay to access the data.

The village chose to go with Flock Safety, and officials confirmed the cameras didn’t go out to bid because the price tag wasn’t high enough to trigger a competitive bidding process.

Lake in the Hills plans to install 12 cameras to start with at a cost of $42,800 for this year and $36,000 annually in future years. Officials plan to use dollars from the State Seizure Fund, which Mannino told village officials Thursday comes “directly from drug investigations, primarily,” to cover the cost.

According to the contract, the data retention period for the cameras will be 30 days and, the initial contract term is for 12 months with a renewal term of 24 months.

Mannino said the technology “has been critical” to solving some cases, including a felony theft case where the police had only a partial license plate and description of the vehicle.

Still, village trustees raised questions and concerns in a May 7 meeting about the use of the license plate cameras.

Though he ultimately voted in favor of the acquisition, Trustee Stephen Harlfinger called the technology a “hard pill to swallow” and also talked about the red-light cameras the village had.

“Anything [can get] hacked into,” Harlfinger said. “I’m still not 100% behind this.”

Other trustees had questions about how the license plate cameras work. Trustee Bill Dustin asked if they would cover one lane or five lanes on Randall Road.

The Lake in the Hills Police Department, 1115 Crystal Lake Road, in Lake in the Hills, on Tuesday Aug. 16, 2022.

Mannino said two cameras would be located on Randall Road since the cameras cover only two lanes of traffic. He said the cameras operate similarly to I-PASS technology.

“You can’t just run people’s information,” Mannino said.

Trustee Diane Murphy asked if the police hypothetically flag a red Toyota sedan, are they going to flag all red Toyota sedans that pass through the reader?

“We wouldn’t take every red car” and run plates, Mannino said. He added all the data accessed is audited to make sure it’s being used properly.

Harlfinger was still skeptical of the technology after the discussion, asking, “What is the legality of this?”

Village attorney Brad Stewart said that there isn’t a “general expectation of privacy” while driving on a public road.

Trustees against talked about the readers Thursday before the village board formally voted to approve them. They were pulled from the consent agenda for the discussion. Trustees had some more questions and concerns. Harlfinger later told the Northwest Herald he thinks the technology has an “Orwellian vibe.”

As for where the technology will be located in town, besides along Randall Road, village documents note: “The cameras will be strategically placed at locations where there are high volumes of traffic or key locations where vehicles enter our community.”