Lexington crime fighting is about to go high tech.
The city recently partnered with Flock Safety and the National Police Foundation for a one-year pilot study using 25 fixed cameras that automatically read license plates in areas experiencing high crime.
Police are expecting to have the cameras in the next three to four weeks, Lexington police officials said. The department will likely have a press conference soon to release more details about the program.
Lexington Assistant Police Chief Eric Lowe told the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council in November the city will not have to pay for the cameras for a year. Typically, those 25 fixed cameras would cost approximately $70,000 a year.
“It’s a pilot project and but also a study being done in in conjunction with the National Police Foundation looking at the effectiveness of license plate reader cameras in law enforcement to solve and reduce crime,” Lowe said.
The cameras are not “red light cameras” that can be used by law enforcement to track and ticket people for running red lights or for other traffic-related offenses. Rather, the images only will be used for investigative purposes, Lowe said.
A Kentucky state law requires an officer to witness a traffic violation in order for someone to get a ticket, he said. There have been attempts to change state law to allow for red light cameras but those attempts have stalled in Frankfort.
How does it work?
Automatic license plate readers use both camera and computer technology to scan license plate numbers. Those license plate numbers are then stored. The numbers can be used to compare against lists of possible stolen cars or cars associated with missing people or abducted children, according to Flock Safety.
The images will be stored for 30 days unless the images become part of a criminal investigation, he said.
The cameras are solar-powered and will be attached to poles. They will not be in police vehicles, he said.
Working with Flock Safety’s crime analysts, the city will determine where the cameras will be placed. They will not be concentrated in certain areas, he said.
“They will be placed all over the county,” Lowe said.
Questions around camera placement
The police have approached the American Civil Liberties Union, the Lexington NAACP and the Lexington-Fayette Human Rights Commission about the cameras and their use, Lowe said. The police also worked with those groups in 2016 when it launched body-worn cameras.
Samuel Crankshaw, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Kentucky, said they have concerns the cameras will be placed based on crime data, resulting in too many cameras in predominately minority neighborhoods.
“Crime maps are based on where illegal activity is documented. Communities of color and low income areas are historically overpoliced, meaning more crimes are documented in those areas than in areas with a lesser police presence,” Crankshaw said. “This creates a false impression that people in communities of color participate in more illegal activity than others. “
Crankshaw said the ACLU and other civil liberty groups are also concerned about how long the data will be kept by a private vendor.
“Currently, the data will be held for 30 days, but there are no provisions keeping it from expanding to longer time periods as data storage becomes less costly,” Crankshaw said. “Additionally, similar programs in other places, including in three towns in Rhode Island, have shown police can use these cameras to identify more than license plates.”
In that instance, police were able to track someone via a bumper sticker, Crankshaw said.
The use of automatic license plate readers, ALPRs, is growing across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics. In cities with populations over 1 million people, 95% have some sort of automatic license plate reader system. In cities of 75,000 or more, 75% of police departments use automatic license plate readers.
According to its website, Flock Safety says it works with more than 1,000 police departments across the country.
Lowe said during the Nov. 30 council meeting that police will return in the next couple of months to the council’s Planning and Public Safety Committee to explain in more detail the policies surrounding the cameras.