(Courtesy of www.flocksafety.com)

North Riverside trustees on Oct. 3 voted unanimously to waive a formal RFP process and purchase seven automatic license plate reader cameras, which will be placed at high-traffic locations in the village.

The village will pay Atlanta-based Flock Safety $24,950 to purchase the seven Falcon cameras, a total that includes costs for “advanced implementation” of a feature called Flock Safety Advanced Search, which allows police to upload any digital image – including doorbell camera video, closed-circuit TV stills and cellphone pictures – to conduct a vehicle search. 

The advanced search function will also allow North Riverside police to access Flock’s entire network of cameras across the area to connect crimes in different locations to a specific vehicle. It also has the ability to determine vehicles traveling together to identify those who may be committing organized crimes, like vehicle thefts and carjackings.

“The importance of these cameras cannot be understated in terms of solving crimes,” said Police Chief Christian Ehrenberg in a phone interview. 

Police have used license plate readers to solve numerous crimes, Ehrenberg said, but they’ve also been useful locating missing persons, such as a resident with dementia who drove away from home. License plate readers were able to track her vehicle’s direction of travel to a location out of state.

“We knew where she was going because of license plate readers,” he said.

In addition to the upfront costs to acquire the cameras and associated technology, the village will pay Flock Safety an annual $19,700 subscription service fee that allows the camera system to interface with other databases, like LEADS, where police from across Illinois pool information, and the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, among others.

Ehrenberg said it will likely take a few months before the camera system goes live in North Riverside, since the village may need to get permission from agencies like the Illinois Department of Transportation or private property owners to place cameras on their poles and structures.

Other neighboring communities that have adopted the Flock camera system include Berwyn, Cicero, Oak Park, LaGrange, Broadview and McCook, according to a memo to trustees from Ehrenberg. The technology is also used by Morton High School District 201. Morton West High School in Berwyn sits directly east of North Riverside along Harlem Avenue.

That kind of coverage, said Ehrenberg, will provide North Riverside police immediate notice that a vehicle which may have been involved in a crime was nearby or in town.

“If the plate is put into the system, it kind of gives us an early warning system,” said Ehrenberg. “If there’s a carjacking in Chicago and that car passes into North Riverside, it alerts our officers directly, so they know a vehicle involved in a carjacking just entered the village at Harlem and Cermak.”

Flock has also partnered with Axon, the company North Riverside uses to outfit its police officers with body cameras and its squad cars with dashboard cameras, so the data is integrated.

The small, solar-powered cameras are motion-activated and are not dependent on reflective license plates for information. The Flock cameras analyze not only license plates (including temporary paper plates), but the state of issuance, a vehicle’s color and make and any objects that also help identify the vehicle, such as roof racks and bumper stickers, giving police a “vehicle fingerprint.”

The cameras, which can be moved from location to location, can process up to 30,000 vehicles a day. Flock says images are stored for 30 days. 

According to a March 2022 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, Flock Safety’s cameras had been installed in roughly 1,400 communities across the country.

The company has also rolled out audio-recording technology, which it markets as a gunshot-detection device, along the lines of the controversial ShotSpotter technology.

Private organizations, such as homeowner associations or neighborhood associations are also able to purchase Flock cameras, which they can then integrate into the overall database, sharing their private information with police. Flock Safety’s aggressive expansion and forays into other technologies is troublesome, according to the ACLU report. 

“Those who purchase Flock cameras are effectively buying and installing surveillance devices not just for themselves, but for the authorities as well, adding their cameras to a nationwide network searchable by police,” the ACLU report said.