On Tuesday evening Winston-Salem City Council unanimously approved an agreement with Flock Safety, a company known for its surveillance technology.
The agreement approved Flock Safety’s request to allow the installation of 25 automated license-plate readers in intersections across all eight wards of the city as part of a pilot program in partnership with the Winston-Salem Police Department and WSPD’s body-camera provider AXON.
According to city council documents, the approval was for 24 cameras but an email from Assistant City Manager Patrice Toney confirmed that there would be 25 with each ward receiving about three cameras.
This trial run will be free to the city through the end of the yearlong pilot period; after that, each camera will cost the city $2,500 per year. Placed within the WSPD’s ShotSpotter coverage area, cameras will be connected to the Real Time Crime Center through the Flock Safety app and cloud-based Fusus. Cameras will be installed at intersections on 12-foot metal poles and reach a total height of 13 feet.
The Public Works Committee — made up of council members Jeff MacIntosh, Barbara Hanes Burke, John Larson and Annette Scippio — unanimously recommended the program’s approval during a committee meeting on Dec. 13 after the proposal was brought up in a March 2022 public safety committee meeting.
According to a map presented to council, four cameras will be located in northern Winston-Salem past Smith Reynolds Airport, with eight slated for the southern areas of the city past Clemmonsville Road. Most of the readers are planned to be installed in the center of the city.
According to WSPD’s Public Information Officer, Kira Boyd, an installation date for the cameras has not yet been set.
How do the license plate readers work?
During WSPD’s presentation by Assistant Chief William Penn, Jr. in March 2022, Penn talked about how and why the readers would be used.
“It’s going to capture license-plate numbers presented to give officers the ability to compare that with suspicious vehicles and vehicles that have been suspected of crimes throughout the city,” Penn said.
These motion-activated cameras do not utilize facial-recognition technology and will capture only the make, model, color and license plate of a vehicle, plus features like roof racks and bumper stickers. Sensors can also detect how many times a vehicle has passed by a reader, as well as identify sounds such as gunshots and screeching tires in audio recordings. WSPD will be notified in real time if the license plate of a stolen or wanted vehicle is detected by the cameras.
During the public works committee meeting on Dec. 13, council member and South Ward representative John Larson asked, “How do we judge the success of this program?”
Assistant City Manager Toney replied, “At the end of the pilot period we’ll have some data on [its] use and how effective [it is].” More cameras may be added after the pilot period, Toney continued. “If it’s something that proves to be effective for the city, then the police department will come back with a request to fund the service going forward.”
According to their website, Flock Safety currently serves more than 2,000 cities in 42 states with operational license-plate readers in nearby cities such as Raleigh and Greensboro. The latter already has 25 cameras installed throughout the city.
In an email to TCB, Greensboro Police Lt. RB Todd said that the technology has yielded positive results.
“Without giving details to any specific case (because they’re all active investigations), I can certainly confirm the technology has been useful in investigating and thwarting violent crime, to include robbery sprees, shootings, and aggravated assaults,” Todd wrote. “We’ve had strong success in utilizing the LPRs to investigate traffic collisions and fatalities, as well. Also, non-criminal investigations have started to lean on the technology, such as helping to find the subjects of Missing Persons reports or Silver Alerts.”
Privacy concerns caused by license plate readers
A report released by the ACLU in March 2022 about Flock Safety sounded the alarm on the company’s capacity to provide surveillance on a massive scale. From the report: “By pulling all the data recorded by its customers — including its police customers — into its own centralized servers, Flock not only creates an enormously powerful private-public machine sweeping up data on Americans’ activities, but puts itself at that machine’s center.”
According to a November 2022 webinar by the city, the cameras cannot capture any personally identifiable information or use facial recognition technology. However, because license plates are tied to car registrations, that assertion seems a bit dubious. In an interview from December 2022 with TCB, former GPD crime analyst Davin Hall said that when law enforcement departments claim that technology can’t be used to specifically identify individuals, it’s not always true.
According to an Associated Press article from September 2022, when using mobile tracking technology, it was revealed that police could use the data obtained to determine personal information.
“The city’s standpoint at the time was that because the mobile ID number did not contain any personally identifiable information, it was fair game as a search,” Hall said about the mobile technology. “I think it’s kind of a ridiculous argument because if there wasn’t any personally identifiable information, we wouldn’t want it.”
When questioned in an email about cameras’ ability to link a license plate to an individual, WSPD’s Public Information Officer Boyd referred TCB to the city’s website for FAQ about the technology.
“There is no personally identifiable information contained in an ALPR record and the operator can only determine the registered owner of a vehicle by querying a separate, secure state government database of vehicle license plate records, which is restricted, controlled and audited,” the website states.
WSPD says that the footage will be owned by the police department and the city, never to be sold or shared by Flock Safety. North Carolina’s statute regarding automated license-plate readers states that systems are prohibited from retaining data beyond 90 days, and that any state or local law enforcement agency using an automated license-plate reader system must adopt a written policy governing its use before the system is operational. TCB has requested a copy of the policy.
In the ACLU report, Flock Safety CEO Garrett Langley said that data collected by the cameras will only be retained for 30 days and then deleted. The City of Winston-Salem’s official website explains how the data will be destroyed.
“All images are captured and stored in AWS; they are tagged with a ‘time to live’ (TTL) which triggers deletion of the image. The image is fully removed from the cloud at that time and is fully unrecoverable by FLOCK, and the law enforcement agency.”
Council member Annette Scippio, representative of the East Ward, said she’s excited that the program is free but has concerns about increasing surveillance in the city.
“It certainly seems like Big Brother is watching you,” she said during the public safety meeting in March 2022. “I know that would be a concern, but my big question is the retention period of the data for only 30 days. Does that mean that footage cannot be used in court proceedings later on?”
Assistant Chief Penn responded affirmatively: “If the data isn’t involved with a missing person or crime. So (if you’re just) going down the street and that data’s captured, after 30 days that data is gone.”
Council members previously moved to delay their vote on the agreement during a public works committee meeting on Sept. 13, citing concerns over insufficient efforts to collect public input on this matter.
Mayor Pro Tem Denise D. Adams voiced her worries during this meeting.
“What does the community feel about this?” she asked. “Particularly my urban, inner-city communities… my Black and Brown communities… Did we ask them? Did we tell them we are getting ready to do this?”
Opposition of these cameras has emerged in other communities around the country. In September 2022 Ypsilanti Township officials in Michigan delayed installation of Flock Safety cameras due to protest from residents. Apprehensions included the possibility of intimate partner stalking within the police department as well as uneasiness that police could use license-plate readers to track women seeking abortions from out of state or if Michigan law changes.
A 2016 investigation by the Associated Press documented incidents of abuse of confidential databases by police officers, reporting: “Police officers across the country misuse confidential law enforcement databases to get information on romantic partners, business associates, neighbors, journalists and others for reasons that have nothing to do with daily police work.”
The report mentioned a case in which a marshal in Mancos, Colorado asked his coworkers to run license plate checks on every white pickup truck they saw simply because his girlfriend was seeing a man who drove that model vehicle.
List of locations of planned license-plate readers in Winston-Salem:
- Bethabara Park Blvd @ Reynolda Rd (WB)
- Hanes Mill Rd @ Germanton Rd (EB)
- Brownsboro Rd @ Cherry St (EB)
- Northampton Dr @ Oak Ridge (NB)
- Jonestown Rd @ Kester Mill Rd (NB)
- Academy St @ Peters Creek Pkwy (WB)
- Westbrook Plaza Dr @ Stratford Rd (EB)
- Reynolds Park Rd @ Waughtown Rd (SB)
- Brewer Rd @ Peters Creek Pkwy (WB)
- Clemmonsville Rd @ S Main St (WB)
- Clemmonsville Rd @ Sprague St (SB)
- S Main St @ W Rhyne Ave (SB)
- Martin Luther King Dr @ Cleveland (EB)
- Patterson Ave @ 30th St (NB)
- 25th St @ Bowen Blvd (WB)
- Stratford Rd @ Buena Vista Rd (NB)
- Northwest Blvd @ Thurmond St (WB)
- N Cleveland Ave @ 14th St (NB)
- Country Club Rd @ Knollwood St (WB)
- 5th St @ Broad St (EB)
- Cloverdale Ave @ Park Grove Ave
- Broad St @ Holly Ave (SB)
- Old Greensboro Rd @ Waterworks Rd (SB)
List of locations of license-plate readers in Greensboro:
- Spring Garden @ Josephine Boyd (WB)
- Spring Garden @ Chapman St (EB)
- MLK Dr @ Randolph Ave (NB)
- MLK Dr @ Randolph Ave (SB)
- E Market St @ Shaw St (EB)
- E Market @ Shaw (WB)
- E Market @ S Raleigh St (EB)
- English St @ E Market (NB)
- Veasley St @ Gate City Blvd (NB)
- Isler St @ Cedar Fork Dr (EB)
- English St @ Market St (SB)
- Merritt Dr. @ Halcyon St. (EB)
- Merritt Dr @ Jane St (SB)
- MLK Jr Dr @ E Bragg St (EB)
- MLK Jr Dr @ E Bragg (WB)
- Pisgah Church & N Church St (WB)
- Pisgah Church & Elm St (EB)
- Phillips Ave & N English St (EB)
- Phillips Ave & Elwell Ave (WB)
- Brompton @ Montrose (SB)
- W Market St & Montrose Dr (NB)
- Stanley Rd & Lenada Rd (WB)
- Stanley Rd & Wendover Ave (SB)
- Merritt Dr. @ Spring Garden St. (WB)
- Merritt Dr. @ Spring Garden St. (SB)
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