There doesn’t seem to be any question that surveillance cameras generally and, increasingly, license plate reader cameras have helped police gather critical evidence leading to high-profile arrests. 

Their use has been credited in helping Riverside police quickly identify the man suspected of a double homicide last November and they might have been useful in identifying suspects involved in a homicide at North Riverside Park Mall during the day of civil unrest on May 31, 2020.

Arguably license plate readers have proven more useful than red-light cameras – their use as an investigative resource was trotted out as justification for those devices in the past – and can be moved around if needed and placed at important intersections that might not make enough revenue as red-light camera locations.

North Riverside trustees voted unanimously last week to go ahead with purchasing seven of the license plate reader cameras, which will be placed at the most heavily trafficked intersections of the village.

That’s welcome news for police investigators, who will now have that information at their fingertips and, apparently, for officers on the street, who will know when a vehicle flagged as being used in a crime is in the area.

That’s because North Riverside’s cameras will be connected to a vast network of cameras – both publicly and privately owned – that can process tens of thousands of vehicles per camera per day. 

There are scores of Flock Safety cameras throughout the Chicago area and thousands of cameras throughout the nation, all of which can draw information from regional and national law enforcement databases.

They are valuable to police because they can identify vehicles not just by license plate, but also by unique characteristics, such as roof racks, spoilers and even bumper stickers. Flock has also ventured into audio-activation, touting a ShotSpotter type of technology.

Unlike ShotSpotter, Flock cameras are closer to the ground in order to read license plates, meaning that those audio recorders might also be able to capture conversations.

What we’re getting at here is that while all of this investigative technology is a plus, Flock’s proliferation is a bit unnerving for those who might be wary of such a wide-ranging surveillance network.

While there’s nothing inherently nefarious about the cameras, we shouldn’t discount the possibility that one day an unscrupulous government agency might use such technology in not so benign ways. 

After all, specific vehicles could be tracked to determine who people associate with and where. Might political bumper stickers be used to identify those people an agency might want to monitor? It’s chilling.

Surveillance cameras are not a panacea, and elected officials ought to keep in mind that their decision to employ surveillance technology may have unintended consequences. Those shoudn’t be discounted when making those decisions.