A Bloomington Technology Commission member said “a little bit of forewarning” could have changed public reception about a police department proposal to install cameras with the ability to read license plates.
Ravi Duvvuri offered the comments at a meeting Tuesday night when Bloomington Police Department Crime and Intelligence Unit supervisor Jack McQueen gave a detailed overview of how the cameras would be deployed if city council members give their approval next month.
“There was a lot public interest, a lot of public outcry even, and a lot of paranoia about what was going on with this because … it just showed up all of a sudden and there was little-to-no-information about it,” Duvvuri said. “I think it might have helped if there had been maybe a little bit more forewarning … maybe some earlier conversations, getting the public involved and letting them know what’s going on. I think the overall tenor would have gone a lot differently.”
Earlier this month, the Central Illinois Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union issued a press release and a public statement during a city council meeting decrying an initial lack of detail in the proposal. The council delayed their vote on the cameras.
“Primarily, more information needs to be shared with the community before the agreement with the Flock Safety company is considered for approval,” the statement read. “Communicating with citizens prior to the approval of such an invasive technology will increase their sense of trust… communication after the fact increases their lack of trust in the police and city government.”
City IT chief Craig McBeath said Tuesday’s meeting, watched by around 79 people while live-streaming, was “on-record for, hopefully, citizens to reference back to answer a lot of the questions that we have been fielding.”
Among the points McQueen emphasized to committee members was that license plate readers, as a concept, are “not new.” What is new, he said, is the aspect of “affordability” and technology developments that allow “just about anybody to use them and have very little overhead in the way of maintenance.”
The cameras, called Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPR) by the Atlanta-based Flock Safety company, take still images of the parts of cars where license plates are located and use machine-learning to generate the plate’s alphanumeric combinations with up to “98-99%” accuracy. McQueen said that information could be used to search law enforcement databases for “make, model, color and plate in combination” adding “there’s never a name, there’s never an address, nothing other than those alphanumeric characters… enter the data system.”
According to BPD’s current proposal, data collected by the Flock ALPR cameras would be stored on Amazon Web Service’s GovCloud.
“This is where law enforcement has been going in the last five years and … will be going in the next 5-10 years: Cloud storage of data not necessarily by a government agency, but a private entity,” McQueen explained. “So, ALPR data, again, will be kept in a cloud held by the vendor, searchable against the database.”
While in the cloud, McQueen said ALPR data is not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, but “the minute we bring the data down from the cloud, we treat it as … we treat any evidence in the police department (and then) that data would be FOI-able because it belongs to us and it belongs to a case.”
Images captured by the cameras would remain on the cloud for 30 days, before automatically being deleted by the company. Were BPD to want data to remain the cloud for a longer period, Flock Safety requires a memo from city council approving the change. McQueen said BPD has “no plans to exceed 30 days.”
The proposal also binds BPD by contract against using the cameras for traffic enforcement — “fines, towing or otherwise.”
McQueen said the department does not intend to use the data for “minor crimes,” instead focusing on “life, safety and health issues” such as violent crime, homicide and burglaries, among other examples.
The instance of those types of crimes over the past year have determined where the cameras will be placed, initially. The proposal has the cameras placed at:
But that’s just for now — or until the crime data indicates a need to move the cameras to be more effective, McQueen said.
“If I’m doing my job and the people that work for me and with me are doing our jobs, we’re moving the cameras,” he told committee members. “These will move around town; they’re not permanent installations. They’ll stay there as long as they’re useful.”
The efficacy of the cameras, however, is not necessarily proven, given the prohibitive nature of high costs until recently.
“Because of that, there isn’t data from 10 years ago, or five years ago that says, you know, ‘In Atlanta, Georgia, or in Chicago, Illinois, it’s reduced crimes by 1,000 or 2,000,'” McQueen said.
Instead, he presented other examples to commission members, citing Decatur Police’s use of such cameras to identify a vehicle involved in the shooting of two teenagers. Two suspects were arrested following that identification. BPD also used Flock cameras from “another local agency” to rule out a suspect in a March 7 shooting on Clearwater Avenue last year.
McQueen also addressed concerns regarding who would be able to access the ALRP data, saying it would limited to vetted personnel. And while Flock cameras are being used by 600 police agencies across 38 states, captured plate data would not automatically be visible to all agencies. Instead, BPD would make an individual agreement with any agency it plans to share data with; in Illinois, there are about 60 using Flock, including the Springfield, Decatur and Rantoul police departments.
“There might be agencies where we just choose not to share our data,” McQueen said. “There may be agencies that we work really well with across the border and we want them to have our data and we need to have their data. But there will be instances, I am sure, where we pick agencies that we want to work with… So it’s not a default that when you join the system, the other 60-some agencies don’t automatically have… images of our cars that have passed our cameras.”
The current proposal also says BPD is to perform a monthly audit of the system to ensure it’s “being utilized correctly.” Aspects of the auditing would be made public via the department’s transparency portal.
“When we start policy on new projects, we take a very hard look at how things can be misused and we try to deal with that before it ever happens — and hope it never happens, of course, but we deal with things like that. So, we do that on our cameras and have been doing that for as long as that technology has existed,” McQueen told commission members as a “reassurance.”
Alderman Jamie Mathy, Bloomington’s city representative to the Technology Commission, said after the meeting that he believed “pretty much every question that I’ve been asked to date, you answered those questions already.”
“We tabled (the proposal) to have more conversation about it to help people understand what we’re doing,” Mathy said. “This was the right way to go on this.”
The city council had been criticized by the local ACLU for initially including the $59,000, two-year agreement with Flock on its Jan. 10 consent agenda — meaning it was an item grouped with others that could have been approved without much discussion — but decided that night to table the measure.
City Manager Tim Gleason said he thinks the city council will ultimately support the new cameras. But the Public Safety and Community Relations Board (PSCRB) members will have an opportunity to weigh in before a final vote. The PSCRB’s next meeting is Feb. 3.
“I want to say it’s more than a courtesy, but it’s definitely not a requirement. And that’s what council’s asked us to do,” said Gleason, adding the camera proposal will likely be back on the council’s Feb. 14 agenda.