Bartholomew County to try license plate readers as crime-fighting tool

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Bartholomew County to test license plate readers as crime-fighting tool

BARTHOLOMEW COUNTY, Ind. — Before long, any vehicle entering Bartholomew County on U.S. 31 near I-65 will pass in front of a digital license plate reader that will take a photograph and upload it to cloud storage for computerized analysis.

If an algorithm determines the vehicle has been reported stolen or flagged for involvement in a crime or missing persons case, the system will alert the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department.

“If a car was just involved in a big drug investigation and there’s drugs in it, and this is the picture of it, then we know what we’re looking for,” said Sheriff Matt Myers. “Anything that we can do to keep residents safe in our community.”

Within the next couple weeks, Myers plans to start testing four of the devices from Atlanta-based Flock Safety. The digital cameras will be placed in busy entryways into Bartholomew County, including U.S. 31 near I-65, State Road 7, State Road 46 and U.S. 31 to the south.  

Myers hopes to become the latest central Indiana police agency to turn to the license plate reading technology as a way of using data-driven policing to more efficiently direct resources. Other agencies including the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, Indiana State Police, Greenwood Police Department and several agencies in Hancock County are already using the system.

Greenfield Police Captain Chuck McMichael says his department has been using the stationary Flock Safety system since April 30. In two months, he said the system has helped solved several cases and saved one life.

“We’ve been able to recover five stolen vehicles, we’ve located one missing person, and we’ve used it to save one suicidal person,” McMichael said.

In the case of the suicidal person, McMichael said a family member had provided Greenfield police with a license plate number of the person in distress. One of the license plate readers identified the vehicle as it passed by, and officers were able to follow the “hit” to the person’s location.

Part of the appeal of the Flock Safety system is the network it creates between police agencies. For example, if a suspect wanted in Indianapolis is picked up on one of Greenfield’s license plate readers, IMPD and Greenfield can both be alerted. McMichael said a recent missing person case ended when the person was identified as being in a Seymour.

“We have the ability with that system to interact and share information and share cameras with other departments all over the country,” McMichael said.

That ability to share, however, is one reason for concern for those who worry about privacy issues associated with the system. The data collected by the Flock Safety is deleted from cloud storage after 30 days. Jane Henegar, executive director of ACLU of Indiana, says 30 days is too long.

“There might be legitimate purposes when it needs to be kept a little bit longer,” Henegar said. “But those can be built into policies to say under these circumstances, this data can be kept for this amount of time.”

While Henegar and others recognize the law enforcement benefits of license plate reading technology, she argues that there are not enough restrictions and clear guidelines on how the collected data is managed. She says there need to be more governmental policies on how the data is used.

“Having transparency and accountability so that we know government isn’t retaining and using this illegitimately,” she said.

Myers says there will be policies and documentation to outline how the system and data should be used.

“If you are not a criminal, this Flock system will not do anything to hurt you,” he said. “If we’re tracking people, it’s because they’re in involved in criminal activity.”

Myers expects to install and start testing the devices within the next couple weeks. The Bartholomew County Commissioners agreed to cover $5,000 of the $11,000 cost to deploy the system. In the next couple months, Myers plans to approach the Bartholomew County Council for permanent funding.

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