The city of Akron is taking steps to become part of a national network of traffic surveillance cameras that has been growing in Northeast Ohio.
A recent demonstration of the system’s capabilities came last month, when a police chase in Macedonia ended with the arrest of two people who police said had arrived in town to shoplift at a local store.
An automated license plate reader (ALPR) installed last fall by Georgia-based Flock Safety alerted police as a stolen vehicle entered town around 8:30 a.m. on April 21. Officers located the car minutes later in the local Target parking lot, they said, just as a thief and driver took off down state Route 82 with a stolen vacuum cleaner.
In a larger investigation, Macedonia police said they worked with departments across Ohio and Michigan to identify a group of scammers accused of stealing more than $100,000 from another retail chain. The Flock camera system was used to track the suspects’ vehicle as they made their way to outlets in multiple cities.
Elsewhere, police say the new technology has helped track down murder suspects, missing persons and in other cases that they say would have been much harder to solve without the technology.
While license plate-reading cameras have been around for years, the new system can also search for images of vehicles based on less specific descriptions across a network spanning multiple states.
While Flock Safety won’t say where its systems are installed, more communities in Northeast Ohio are looking at doing business with the company. Those communities include Akron, which is considering installing 137 cameras around the city this year.
Flock Safety’s rapid growth
Flock Safety, founded in 2017, says it has built a surveillance network comprising more than 1,500 customers across the country. Customers include police, universities, businesses and homeowners associations.
Police departments use the cameras to read license plates and send alerts when the plates turn up in databases of stolen vehicles or people wanted on warrants.
But the system’s investigative capabilities are even stronger: Customers can also conduct searches based on characteristics such as vehicle type, make, color, license plate state, missing or covered plates, and other unique features like bumper stickers, decals and roof racks.
The system’s 5 megapixel cameras are leased for about $2,500 per year, and the company says the cameras can capture license plate images from vehicles traveling up to 100 mph, day and night, up to 75 feet away. The still images cannot be used for speed enforcement, and the system does not employ facial recognition technology.
In September, the company said it had about two dozen customers in the Greater Cleveland area. The company declined to name its customers, including municipalities and other public entities, “unless they have identified themselves publicly.”
At the time, only two Summit County communities had leased cameras — Macedonia and Northfield Village.
Since then, the company has expanded its reach to Twinsburg and neighboring Aurora in Portage County. Flock Safety is also conducting a trial in Brunswick in Medina County and has approached other cities throughout the area.
The largest expansion to its system may come in Akron, where the city administration is preparing to ask City Council to approve around $340,000 per year for a total of 137 cameras.
An extra eye on Akron
Akron Police Deputy Chief Michael Caprez said the city intends to install the cameras throughout neighborhoods.
“We estimate a rollout sometime this summer, hopefully early summer,” Caprez said. “We’ve been looking for ways to increase our footprint for cameras out in our wards. Council people have been asking for a long time for additional resources out there.”
Twenty of the 137 cameras the city would be installing would be allocated to a neighborhood just off of the University of Akron campus south of East Exchange Street.
The cameras would be part of a joint project with the university following an initiative to improve safety in the area after two people were shot to death there last September.
Akron, university to boost security: University of Akron addresses off-campus safety as Akron police search for suspects in double homicide
Caprez said the cameras can greatly improve the department’s ability to catch criminals.
“There is some AI technology in the cameras that will allow us to enter a description of a vehicle,” he explained. “For example, if a store is robbed and all they can tell us is it’s a four-door red sedan with a sticker in the back window, we can enter that information and if that car has recently passed, or in the future passes by one of the Flock cameras, we’ll get an alert — a vehicle matching your description just passed a camera at this location at this time, going in this direction. It will give us an alert to go to that area to look for that car.”
Caprez said the search would alert Flock-affiliated police departments across the country.
“If that car drives by a Flock camera in Atlanta, Georgia, the system will notify us, and them, that the system has alerted on that vehicle,” he said.
Stephanie Marsh, chief communications officer for the city of Akron, said Friday that drafts of the proposed agreement were not available and that the administration did not have a date to submit the proposal to council.
Suburban surveillance in place
Macedonia Police Lt. Vince Yakopovich said the April 21 shoplifting arrest is typical of the crimes the department has been solving since the city installed six Flock cameras last year. Less typical is a group of scammers who came to town in a rental car.
“They got $26,000 on a scam that they pull on these stores,” he said, adding that a detective investigating the case used the system to search for every out-of-state license plate that had passed by a Flock camera in Macedonia.
“We found a rental car, then we ran it through the national Flock system and it showed they were all over Ohio and into Michigan, and every place that we got a hit, we called those departments …”
He said investigators identified thefts associated with the rental vehicle, explaining the scammers would enter the store, find an inexperienced cashier and leave with thousands of dollars worth of gift cards they would trick the cashier into issuing.
“We identified the people. We found out who rented the car and we have warrants out for them,” he said.
In Twinsburg, which recently installed cameras and was training officers in their use the last week of April, Lt. Brian Donato said the department has been able to recover stolen vehicles overnight.
“We made our first warrant arrest with them last weekend,” he said April 28.
“We had a couple cars broken into, and one of them was stolen. They just recovered it today in Euclid,” he said.
Aurora has also solved crimes with its 11 cameras, which were installed in February, said Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin.
“Among other things, we’ve recovered four stolen autos and one stolen license plate in the last three months,” she said, adding she believes the cameras have also been useful in investigating shoplifting.
“They do not record speed, red lights, or any other sort of traffic infraction, and that’s important from my perspective,” she said.
Hudson residents oppose
While the city of Hudson had been considering joining Macedonia and Twinsburg in contracting with Flock Safety, concerns from residents prevented City Council from taking action.
“Essentially, we had a lot of people in the community reach out and were concerned with the storage of the data and the usage of the data,” said Chris Foster, Hudson City Council president and interim mayor. “I think Hudson residents are just leery of government transparency in general. They just don’t like people having data on them that they don’t deserve to have.
“Personally I didn’t see Flock as being terribly intrusive. The reason that I said I couldn’t support it was so many residents came forward and said they didn’t want it,” he added.
He noted one of the concerns about use of the technology was the amount of time data would be stored. He said the city could set storage time down to as short as “a few days,” which may alleviate some concerns.
At council’s March 1 meeting, other members of council commented, after the contract was removed from consideration.
“It doesn’t seem to be widely supported at this time,” said Councilman Skylar Sutton.
“Right now, it looks like it just isn’t the thing to do,” said Councilman Chris Banweg.
Councilwoman Kate Schlademan said she favored the technology and said there are homeowners associations in Hudson “that are looking at it as well,” and added she hopes to discuss the proposal in the future.
She later declined to respond to questions for this report regarding homeowners associations.
In October, The Washington Post profiled Flock Safety and a controversy that “tore the neighborhood apart” in a Colorado subdivision.
Residents cited in that story echoed the concerns members of Hudson City Council said residents had expressed.
The Post article also reported that the pilot project in Dayton upset many residents because so many cameras were placed “in the heart of the city’s Latino community — including outside a church where local immigrant families attend Mass and gather with friends.”
Since that article, the American Civil Liberties Union has said Flock Safety “is building a form of mass surveillance unlike any seen before in American life.”
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the ACLU, said in a March report that Flock, through sales to both private entities such as homeowners associations and law enforcement, “effectively enlists its customers into a giant centralized government surveillance network.”
According to his report, “Flock not only allows private camera owners to create their own ‘hot lists’ that will generate alarms when listed plates are spotted, but also runs all plates against state police watchlists and the FBI’s primary criminal database, the National Crime Information Center.”
On its website, the company says “Flock was founded with the belief that we can increase public safety while protecting our civil liberties, and we do that by focusing on objective evidence, limiting access to that data, and limiting data retention. We also provide transparent audits that allow anyone to see how the system is being used.”
The ACLU also cites alleged loose checks on the behavior of law enforcement.
“Unfortunately, this country has a long tradition, extending up to the present, of law enforcement targeting people not because they’re suspected of criminal activity but because of their political or religious beliefs or race … There are also many documented instances of individual officers abusing police databases, including ALPR (Automated License Plate Recognition) databases.”
Local law enforcement agencies say they use the same sort of protocols that govern use of current restricted-access law enforcement databases.
On the fence
Despite marketing its product throughout the region, some area communities approached by Flock have held off on signing up for various reasons.
Stow Police Capt. Bryan Snavely cited budgetary concerns and said the city saw the company’s demonstration last year and is evaluating a proposal.
“Essentially, they’ve given us a demo and we’re contemplating whether we want to move forward or not,” he said.
Tallmadge Police Chief Ronald Williams said the city has no intent to sign on at this time and referred to a different license plate reader system the department had contracted with a few years ago.
“At one time we tried it on a couple of cars and we had a bad experience with it … it wouldn’t work,” he said.
Bath Township Police Chief Vito Sinopoli said he is working with Fairlawn, Copley and “potentially Richfield” on a cooperative agreement on some sort of license plate reader system, and has spoken with several companies. He added Flock is planning to present a demonstration of its product in May.
In Cuyahoga Falls, spokesperson Kelli Crawford-Smith said the city has been researching the reader system but currently does not have plans to move forward with a contract.
In Portage County, Streetsboro Police Chief Tricia Wain said the company has approached the city about its system, but the city is not signing up, adding, “it may be possible in the future.”
“It’s a great investigative tool … It’s just not something we have the funding for right now,” she said.
Spreading across Ohio
According to news reports from multiple outlets, communities across Ohio have installed, or have used Flock Safety cameras in the past. The following list is not all-inclusive and may not reflect current contracts.
In Cuyahoga County: Brecksville, Hunting Valley, Independence, Orange and Solon. Broadview Heights was also considering the system, according to Beacon Journal partner News 5 Cleveland. North Royalton reportedly voted to reject a contract.
In Lake County, Mentor and Willoughby Hills have reportedly installed Flock cameras.
The Dayton Daily News recently surveyed communities in Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties and found eight had installed the camera system, nine had no plans to and three were undecided.
The publication also reported the city of Dayton had previously installed a Flock pilot program where data showed crime dropped more than 33% in one neighborhood.
Eric Marotta can be reached at 330-541-9433, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarottaEric.