In May of this year, a man walked into a hospital in Midtown Atlanta and shot five women, injuring three critically and killing one. The suspect quickly fled the scene, and the entire city went into lockdown.
Officers apprehended Deion Patterson, suspected of committing the shooting, in just eight hours. The key to finding him? Atlanta-based startup Flock Safety, an automated license plate recognition (ALPR) system. Flock’s camera network closely documented Patterson’s movements, providing critical details that helped police easily find and arrest their man.
“The combination of the people and the technology, to me, definitely saved lives. The first indication that we got that he was in Cobb County was from a Flock license plate recognition camera in the Smyrna area,” Cobb County Police Chief Stuart Vanhooze told ANF Atlanta.
Today, more than 3,000 communities across the U.S. use Flock technology. The company has partnered with more than 1,800 law enforcement agencies, including 15 in Pennsylvania — but not Philly. With an increase in carjackings, a still-too-high homicide rate, and a still-too-low clearance rate, could a Philadelphia Police Department-owned ALPR system like Flock help solve crimes here, too?
In 2017, Garrett Langley’s house in the Atlanta Metro area became another victim in a string of neighborhood home invasions. After the robberies, he and his neighbors collected video from their doorbell and home security cameras, brought it to detectives, and learned their footage was too blurry to use.
Langley was flabbergasted. He began looking into crime data and police’s solve — or clearance — rates. His findings then resemble today’s: In 2019, police solved just 17.2 percent of reported property crimes and 45.5 percent of violent crimes nationwide, per Pew. Here in Philly, the PPD solves 37 percent of fatal shootings and 19 percent of non-fatal shootings, according to a 2022 report from the City Controller.
So Langley, who had already founded and sold a vehicle subscription service and a ticketing company, decided to see if he could help. His research showed that most crimes involved a vehicle, often stolen. The International Association of Chiefs of Police found that 97 percent of people accused of stealing a vehicle were charged with additional crimes, ranging from I.D. theft to homicide. Capturing license plate data could have a crime-solving ripple effect.
For Flock customers, the tradeoff of privacy in the form of cameras that record drivers’ comings and goings has been worth the safety it provides their communities.
“You think about carjackings; you think about hit-and-runs; you think about just how often normal people like you and me use vehicles in our daily lives,” says Holly Beilin, director of communications at Flock. “It’s the same thing for folks committing crime.”
An engineer by education, Langley went to work building the tech. Flock’s first customers were neighborhoods and HOAs seeking to provide better evidence, just like he and his neighbors. Though ALPR technology has been around since the 70s, Flock’s system is distinct in that it doesn’t measure speed or capture other traffic violations. Flock cameras continuously and precisely capture license plate data, then work together to chart a vehicle’s exact locations at exact times — with the specific goal of solving crime.
Today, Langley’s company charges HOAs and other non-law enforcement customers $2,500 per camera plus installation fees of $150-$650. Flock offers custom pricing to law enforcement. In 2022 and 2023, Inc. put Flock on their list of 5,000 fastest-growing companies. They now have about 800 employees and have expanded their offerings to include home security and gun detection camera systems.
Safety … or surveillance?
Like similar video surveillance systems (think: Ring cameras), Flock has faced questions over the potential invasiveness of its tech and handling of customer data. In a 2022 report on the company, the ACLU called Flock “a sweeping and powerful mass-surveillance tool” and expressed deep worry about potential misuse — such as over-policing communities of color, or deporting undocumented residents. (ICE has used Motorola Solutions’ private ALPR database for the last purpose.)
“Every new customer that buys and installs the company’s cameras extends Flock’s network, contributing to the creation of a centralized mass surveillance system of Orwellian scope,” the ACLU’s 2023 follow-up report says. “There’s no reason the technology should be used to create comprehensive records of everybody’s comings and goings — and that is precisely what ALPR databases like Flock’s are doing.”
Langley says he is sensitive to privacy concerns and that he didn’t design a system to store data indefinitely — or to sell data, as other video surveillance services do. (Ring, for example, has shared its data with Facebook and others.)
On the other hand, a crime-solving ALPR must store data longer than its traffic-monitoring counterparts in order to carry out its purpose. Flock’s default storage time is 30 days, although the company complies with local laws that require ALPR footage storage for up to 60 or 90 days. (PA currently does not have any laws regulating how long ALPR data is stored, despite state legislators’ efforts.)
Flock customers own their own data; their contracts state that Flock cannot sell or share data with third parties. A company spokesperson said they do not work with ICE. Nor do they use facial recognition technologies, which tend to have racial biases. Flock takes precise pictures of cars’ backsides, period.
“Within the system, there’s really no personally identifiable information,” Beilin says. “That actually requires a detective who’s authorized to go into that state’s registration database and figure out who that license plate is owned by.” Of course, there’s the human risk of information gathering software: Those authorized to access its data must do so ethically.
Flock in PA
For Flock customers, the tradeoff of privacy in the form of cameras that record drivers’ comings and goings has been worth the safety it provides their communities. Their cameras have helped locate missing persons and children in Amber alert cases. They’ve helped solve murders and catch alleged drug traffickers. In Cobb County, where Patterson was caught, Flock’s ALPR and gun detection cameras have helped police achieve a 100 percent homicide clearance rate for the past two years.
“Folks think of license plate recognition cameras as just recovering stolen vehicles, but it is so much broader than that,” Beilin says.
Hazelton, PA started using Flock’s cameras in 2021 after a local teenager became the victim of a fatal hit-and-run. The police had canvassed town for witnesses, to no avail. So they decided to invest in a technology that could help in the future. Flock appealed to them because of its streamlined, easy-to-use tech.
Brian Schoonmaker, Hazelton’s chief of police, says that the camera system helps them solve at least a dozen crimes each year. “We use it for almost all of our investigations.”
Hazleton is much smaller than Philly — six square miles and 30,000 residents. Still, their 52-camera system scans more than 6 million license plates per month and notifies police if any of the vehicles have been reported as being involved in a crime. The system has aided in cases ranging from stolen vehicles and missing persons to homicide investigations and federal drug trafficking. In one case, the police and state investigators were able to track and arrest a murder suspect who drove through Hazelton after fleeing a nearby county. The town has had such success with the system, neighboring communities in Butler County and Sugarloaf and Weatherly townships are looking into implementing the tech.
“We have a plethora of success stories with these,” Schoonmaker says.
Flock in Philly?
Philly has its own history of ALPR. In 2013, the Philadelphia Police Department worked with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Regional Task Force to mount 25 Mission Critical Partners cameras on police vehicles, hoping they’d detect stolen vehicles and cars associated with other crimes. It didn’t work, because, for one, local police didn’t have control over the cameras’ locations. NBC10 recently reported that, for the past two years, Philly’s ALPR led to zero recovered vehicles or arrests. As of June, only one camera still worked.
This year, they’re trying again. The PA Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD) gave the PPD and the District Attorney’s Office two grants worth $25 million and $20 million, respectively, to upgrade the police crime lab and increase the city’s video surveillance technologies. Some of those funds are going to a new, department-operated ALPR camera system. So far, 30 vehicle-mounted cameras and 120 fixed pole-mount units from Genetec, the same company that provides the department’s non-ALPR video surveillance, are up and running.
Genetec’s cameras operate similarly to Flock’s, except they store data for one year — longer if law enforcement needs footage for an investigation. The system is new; no results are in. A PPD spokesperson says the department plans to partner with an academic institution to evaluate how the program is working.
Like Flock, Genetec allows businesses and nonprofit organizations to share footage from their security systems with police. Genetec differs from Flock, however, in that they do not offer their products to individuals or HOAs.
Only Flock’s system could expand the PPD’s access to data by allowing the department to access security footage from individuals or neighbor groups. “If law enforcement and the privately-owned entity both sign an agreement so they have to both opt in, the privately on camera can actually be shared directly with law enforcement,” Beilin explains. “A lot of our HOAs, frankly, prefer that.”
Flock seems to be the most all-in-one option on the market. Its ALPRs also capture identifying features like bumper stickers, and vehicle color, make and model. Genetec’s ALPR, AutoVu, captures images of license plates only. It must be paired with the company’s video surveillance tools to capture additional features (which seems to be the PPD’s plan).
Flock could also expand the City’s use of video surveillance systems targeted toward gun detection, rather than just general surveillance. Genetec does not have its own gun detection security product; they recommend Shooter Detection Systems to their customers. Currently, SEPTA has partnered with the Philly-based AI gun detection service ZeroEyes to try to detect gun use on the subway system.
Flock, says Hazelton’s Shoonmaker, has proven both effective and conveneint. “It instantly just sends the information to my officers either via their phones, their text messages, or their email. If they have their computer open on the car, it’ll pop up,” he says. “It make our jobs a lot easier, so that we don’t have to be everywhere at once.”
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