Surveillance or a useful tool? More license plate readers come to McHenry County

It’s expected the majority of police agencies in county will soon use them, one official said

A Flock Safety license plate reader near at the intersection of Route 120 and Queen Anne Road in Woodstock.

Last August, McHenry police found a vehicle stolen out of Round Lake Park in town, Deputy Chief Thomas Walsh said. The person in the vehicle had drugs and a stolen handgun. In January, another vehicle, this time stolen out of Berwyn, was recovered in town.

Both vehicles were recovered with the direct help of license plate readers. The story is similar to what other police agencies in McHenry County have experienced. Still, some residents, including Bryan Huerta of Woodstock, are skeptical of the devices and don’t trust the police to use them. They are ripe for abuse, he said.

“It’s the police overstepping their boundaries,” Huerta said. “It’d be no different than us standing in front of the police department and recording all their activity. They deem that suspicious. But for them to do that, it’s OK.”

As license plate readers pop up across McHenry County, police agencies touting their benefits say readers can help solve crimes, but residents and groups alike are voicing concerns over privacy and a feeling of being watched.

They are a massive surveillance system that is being deployed in a community.

—  American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois spokesperson Ed Yohnka

Some agencies, including Woodstock and the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office, already have invested in the technology, while others such as Huntley are looking into obtaining them.

“The majority of agencies in our area will be getting these and working together with them,” Huntley Deputy Police Chief Linda Hooten said. “It’s a team effort to keep our communities and county safe.”

That expansion is bringing a concern for some, particularly if the license plate reader systems don’t bring with them hefty restrictions and oversight as to what can be done with the data collected, said Ed Yohnka, spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

“They are a massive surveillance system that is being deployed in a community,” Yohnka said.

Police agencies, however, don’t feel the same way. Hooten said she thinks the concern over readers stems from them being new technology, bringing with them a lot of unknowns. Like officials in other agencies, she said police departments are using them for specific instances of crime. She compared it to police scanning a license plate in other instances, such as a traffic stop. Any information gathered is confidential.

“License plates can be seen by anybody on the streets,” Hooten said. “It’s specific things we’re looking for. Not every car is going to be monitored or looked at.”

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

Woodstock Police Chief John Lieb said he believes residents know these readers are not being used to look into private lives, adding his department has a “strong trust” within the community. If people are just going about their business, “they’ll never hear from us.”

“If you are ever out in public, you are on many private and public cameras,” Lieb said. “This is nothing different. … We’re just holding those accountable who are conducting criminal activities.”

Yohnka said he thinks the state should set restrictions to limit readers’ use to specific types of crimes, as well as on who controls the data and what can be done with it.

The McHenry County Sheriff’s Office approved a number of body cameras and 80 in-car license plate readers in March 2022, Chief of Operations Michael Muraski said. They rolled them out in October and so while they bring benefits, he said it’s too early for the agency to share any data on the cameras’ effectiveness.

If you are ever out in public, you are on many private and public cameras. This is nothing different. … We’re just holding those accountable who are conducting criminal activities.

—  Woodstock Police Chief John Lieb

In Woodstock, police first implemented license plate readers in 2021, when the City Council approved two for squad cars. Those readers are used mainly for parking and traffic enforcement in the city’s downtown, Lieb said. The other set, which are stationary and sit at thoroughfares coming in and out of the city, were approved in 2022, according to city documents. Those are owned and operated by Flock Safety.

Agencies across the country are installing these types of cameras more, citing the recent crime spike that trailed the COVID-19 pandemic, Yohnka said. However, that justification has changed over time, he said.

“A decade ago, these systems were marketed as something to track down people who owed parking tickets,” Yohnka said. “So what is it that’s going to trigger the use of the system?”

The McHenry Police Department has had two stationary Flock Safety cameras since last year and could add two more. With those cameras, the department has protocols in place to prevent police officers from abusing the system, such as keeping tabs on their spouse, Walsh said.

The department does not actively monitor its cameras, Walsh said. Instead, it alerts dispatch when vehicles put into the system pass by a camera.

“We have not received any complaints [from residents],” Walsh said.

We have that high integrity of protecting people’s privacy and it’ll the same with these [readers].

—  Huntley Deputy Chief Linda Hooten

Flock Safety spokesperson Holly Beilin said employees don’t have access to any data stored by the cameras and can see only the camera’s health. As a result, employees can do “nothing” with the data unless given permission by a customer. That activity is then logged.

“No Flock Safety employee monitors the footage taken by customer cameras,” Beilin said in an email.

Beyond Flock, data collected from cameras can be shared with other departments, which police agencies say help catch fleeing criminals. However, individual departments must give each other access before any images can be shared, Beilin said.

Any data or images collected are deleted within 30 days unless a governing body, such as a state or city council, approves a different time set, Beilin said. Flock also requires certain information in order to look up data in the system, such as a case number. Any lookups in a system are able to be audited as well.

While many agencies in McHenry County don’t yet have enough data to show how effective the readers might be, Yohnka argues that departments should be required to report publicly on such a thing, including whether there were any violations.

“There should be public transparency on how these things work,” Yohnka said. “I think it’s up to the supporters to demonstrate they are helpful.”

Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, said they think police agencies will do the right thing with the devices, similar to what they do with other information gathered.

“We have that high integrity of protecting people’s privacy, and it’ll be the same with these [readers],” Hooten said.