In February, the North Riverside Park Mall installed 10 license plate reader cameras at the shopping center’s entrance and exit points. The mall has shared access to that data with police, who receive alerts anytime a vehicle associated with a serious crime enters the mall property. | Bob Uphues/Editor

Last fall when North Riverside trustees voted to approve installing a network of license plate reader cameras at key village entry/exit locations, Police Chief Christian Ehrenberg described the devices as an “early warning system” to let officers know when a vehicle connected to a serious crime had entered the village.

While the village network of seven cameras has taken some time to roll out – there’s just one presently installed at the intersection of Harlem Avenue and Cermak Road – the impact of the cameras has made itself evident elsewhere.

At about the same time the village’s lone cameras went operational at Harlem and Cermak, the North Riverside Park Mall, 7501 Cermak Road, installed 10 license plate reader cameras on their property near entry/exit points – and made the data instantly available to local police.

Since mid-February, according to North Riverside police, those cameras have been instrumental in 14 incidents in which police either made an arrest, recovered a stolen vehicle or both.

“If someone is in a stolen auto, the modus operandi is it’s stolen because they don’t want a car that can be linked back to the person driving it and they’re going to commit more crimes,” Ehrenberg said. “If we know who they are before they get into town, it’s a win for everyone.”

The license plate reader cameras are all part of a system called Flock, which can be purchased by public and private entities who then have the ability to share their information with anyone else who’s part of the system.

Flock camera customers also have the ability to choose what they want the cameras to flag. In addition to license plates, the cameras have the ability to discern unique vehicle characteristics, such as make and model, roof racks and bumper stickers.

If someone steals a car and puts stolen license plates on it to throw off police, those other characteristics can help ID the vehicle anyway. If a vehicle that’s been reported stolen or is suspected of being involved in a crime, police get instant alerts to let them know they’re in town, and where.

In a busy commercial area such as Harlem and Cermak or the mall, the cameras read thousands of license plates a day.

“My overall feeling is it’s just one more arrow in the quiver, so why wouldn’t you do it?” Ehrenberg said. “There’s no way an officer can run every plate. It’s not even a question. It’s a benefit to us and the village.”

North Riverside will soon install its second camera at the northeast corner of 31st Street and First Avenue on property owned by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. On March 20, village trustees ratified an intergovernmental agreement with the Forest Preserves to install the device at that busy intersection.

According to Ehrenberg, it has taken a while to get village-owned cameras installed because they sometimes need to ink agreements with private property owners, which is why it took some months for the Harlem/Cermak camera to go live. 

There’s another agreement currently being vetted by lawyers for Hines V.A. Hospital, on whose property North Riverside police would like to install a camera near First Avenue and Cermak Road.

In other cases, the village awaits Illinois Department Transportation permission to install cameras along their rights of way, such as Harlem Avenue.

“We have another three that are supposed to be approved soon,” Ehrenberg said.

In the meantime, license plate alerts coming from the cameras at North Riverside Park Mall have kept North Riverside police busy, and mall officials have been pleased so far with their impact.

“The safety and security of North Riverside Park Mall guests, retailers and employees has always been our highest priority,” said Glenn Lindholm, general manger of the mall for The Feil Organization, in an email. “They complement our existing safety initiatives of increased security personnel and ongoing communication with our business leaders. The Flock cameras are part of our ongoing efforts to provide visitors to NRPM with a safe place to gather, be entertained, and shop within the community.”

On Feb. 20 and 21, police recovered two stolen cars – a Kia and a Hyundai – at the mall. In one instance, police arrested two people shortly after they parked the car. In the other, they made no arrests, but reported that someone seen running toward that vehicle before fleeing in another had been chased through the parking lot by security after allegedly being involved in a retail theft at the mall.

On March 1, North Riverside police arrested two people, a juvenile and an 18-year-old who arrived at the mall in a Jeep stolen the prior night in Chicago. The two allegedly used stolen credit cards to buy at least $1,600 in gift cards at a grocery store before going to North Riverside Park Mall to use the cards to buy hundreds of dollars’ worth of merchandise.

Police arrested the two in the mall parking lot, but not before the driver had managed to get inside the stolen Jeep and tried to drive off. The Jeep struck a police squad and another car before officers smashed out a window and dragged the driver from the vehicle. 

He reportedly was armed with a loaded handgun, also allegedly stolen. They also recovered gift cards purchased with the stolen credit cards and merchandise bought with those cards at the mall.

To avoid such dangerous encounters, Ehrenberg said police have now devised a way to immobilize unoccupied stolen vehicles so that they can’t be driven away when suspected criminals return to them. Ehrenberg declined to describe the immobilization process.

“We don’t want them to get into a car, because then it’s a weapon,” Ehrenberg said. “They don’t care if they hurt someone, but that’s our greatest concern. We had to come up with a way so if they get into the car, they can’t start it. We don’t want them behind the wheel.”

The Flock camera alert system isn’t foolproof. There have already been a handful of instances in North Riverside where a car has been flagged as a stolen vehicle, but isn’t. In some of those cases the vehicles had been reported stolen but then recovered without informing police.

In one case, on Feb. 23, North Riverside police ordered a woman out a vehicle and handcuffed her in front of her four children after a computer check confirmed the vehicle  was reported stolen.

Police later learned the driver had been given permission to drive her children to school the day before but had not returned the car yet. The owner told police not to press charges, saying they just wanted the car back.

“To mitigate that danger, our policy is that we don’t act solely on the information from Flock,” Ehrenberg said, adding that police verify whether it’s still listed as an active steal in the Law Enforcement Agencies Data System (LEADS). “We’re not acting as if it’s a stolen automobile right off the bat.”

Ehrenberg said the Flock system allows police to choose criteria for flagging vehicles, some of which can be for minor offenses. He said North Riverside’s cameras are and will continue to be set to flag only vehicles associated with serious crimes.

“I myself am not a Big Brother kind of guy,” Ehrenberg said. “It’s not meant for your average person. It’s meant to protect residents – that’s an easy one.”