The installation of cameras across Phenix City is not to be compared to the CCTV cameras in massive quantities in London. But, they will serve a purpose for law enforcement. In an agreement with Alabama Power Company, the local police department will coordinate the locations of 11 license plate reader (LPR) cameras.
The cameras will not collect data, but will assist police in finding stolen vehicles and perhaps catch vehicles listed in Amber Alerts. The surveillance network will include nine cameras mounted on power poles and two will be mobile, mounted on trailers. The ones on the power poles will be able to be moved when directed by the police department. Police Chief Ray Smith and Captain George Staudinger explained that Alabama Power initially came up with using cameras for its own purposes to protect the company from widespread theft of equipment but branched out and now acts as a vendor for other organizations.
The artificial intelligence video technology has been around since the early 2000’s. Smith said the department has been using it for the past five years, and that it is getting better and more affordable. In fact, private organizations can also purchase and utilize LPR technology. More and more organizations like Homeowner Associations and private businesses are buying and using LPR technology to protect their assets.
The 11 cameras are being leased from Alabama Power in a two-year agreement for a total of approximately $22,000 in monthly installments of $1,833 each.
“This LPR is through Alabama Power, so it’s a reputable, established company,” Staudinger said. “They stand behind the maintenance of the equipment, and they’re responsible for any problems. In 72 hours, they’ll either find the solution or install new equipment for us. The support from Alabama Power is key to this being successful. We don’t have to pay for their run-off service or cellular data…so, there’s no cost for us there. It’s all inclusive.”
Staudinger explained that this system is more cost effective. The LPR they have on a vehicle costs about as much as all 11 cameras combined and is at risk due to the vehicle being in constant use.
“If that officer or deputy is on call somewhere…tied up making an arrest, is at the jail or hospital, that’s downtime when the card reading isn’t being utilized,” Staudinger said.
“License plate readers are not data gatherers for us to find [someone]. If we are looking for you, yes, but if we are not looking for you we are not looking at that data. The data is in the system, but it’s not going to alert us.”
The data, which is stored in the ‘cloud,’ is also shared with other agencies in the spirit of mutual aid, such as between Phenix City and Columbus. Data can even be shared with out-of-state agencies, if they are online and a part of the system, which has proven helpful in cases like kidnappings. Smith said his department will use it for investigative purposes, such as finding robbers, car thieves, murderers, etc.
“When the [mobile] computer sees that tag, or that vehicle information programmed into the machine, it gives that officer an alarm which comes up on a screen,” Smith said. “The stationary cameras send an alert to strategic phones, like the Captain’s phone, and gives an alert.”
Smith compared the alert as being similar to an Amber alert in how it works and that it allows the department to not only track where the car is but oftentimes helps in determining where the car might be going. He said that stolen cars are the most common reason they get an alert and added that Columbus has the highest car theft rate per capita in the nation.
“It’s not that the cars are being stolen to be sent to a scrap yard or chop shop,” Staudinger added. “They are being stolen to be used in other crimes, mainly for use in property crimes in the day time. They’ll steal the car today, ditch it, use it for a couple of days, ditch it and steal another one. So, there are a lot of stolen cars. That’s really going to help us to get that data and know when a stolen car is in an area. It will cut down on residential burglaries.”
But even this equipment has its limitations under the law. Investigatory use of the system is tracked by event and user. An investigator, or anyone else in the department, can’t just tap into the database to get whatever they want, whenever they want. Every log-in is tracked and must have sufficient cause. The department is regularly audited on its use and must provide to the auditors why they collected data and how they used that data. Also, the system deletes all the files every 30 days as legally required. Also, the LPR data collected can only be obtained outside of the department by a subpoena.
Smith did admit that this technology does have the potential for abuse, but maintains that the laws in place protect the privacy of individual, law-abiding citizens. The fact of the matter is that surveillance in today’s society goes far beyond a city simply trying to prevent car thefts and catch people committing serious crimes.
The cameras are expected to be installed and fully operations by January 2021. For more information on the capabilities of LPR technology, visit www.flocksafety.com.