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ACLU on Bloomington Police proposal for plate-reading cameras: 'This agreement is not fair to the City ... or its residents'

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The proposal for the ALPR cameras was set to go before members of the Public Safety and Community Relations Board (PSCRB) on Thursday, but severe weather led to the meeting's cancellation. A date for the rescheduled meeting has not yet been set.

The Central Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is calling a proposed contract between the Bloomington Police Department and Flock Safety "not fair to the City of Bloomington or its residents."

Organization president Carol Koos said the ACLU has added the contract's terms to its list of concerns after first taking issue with privacy and security matters in early January. The Central Illinois Chapter of the ACLU first raised questions ahead of a Jan. 10 city council meeting, in which a contract with Flock Safety was listed on the council's consent agenda — meaning it could have been voted on without much discussion from council members. The $59,000, two-year proposal for 10 of Flock's automatic license plate reading (ALPR) cameras was tabled, but it is expected to be back on the council's Feb. 14 agenda.

In the meantime, Koos said the ACLU's attorneys have completed their own review of the contract and found it lacking.

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ACLU chapter president Carol Koos said the city of Bloomington should create a transparent public input process before ratifying a contract for traffic cameras that capture license plate numbers.

"Primarily, their response was that the contract itself is very lopsided — it very much favors Flock," Koos said in an interview with WGLT. "It's just really surprising. We had a concern with it just in looking at it — just our (local) steering committee, here. That was even before we sent it up to Chicago."

Koos described the contract's terms as vague, with "poorly defined" language and a "lack of clarity" about how the data will be used, who can access it and whether or not it will be sold. Beyond privacy and usage issues, the ACLU's latest position statement notes the contract as-written allows an "aggressive fee and payment structure" and puts the city "on the hook for virtually all changes or modifications of any kind and any reason ... to the ALPR devices themselves."

"It's, frankly, rather confounding that it would have gotten this far," Koos said.

Communications and external affairs manager Katherine Murphy said the City of Bloomington's legal team regarded the contract in its current form as "standard."

Contract administrator and city legal counsel "Josh Austin went through the contract and while not all the terms are as the City would have drafted, it is a standard industry contract," Murphy said in an email. Prior to that, "Bloomington PD had the Flock contract first and after going over it, they were comfortable enough with the language to bring it to our legal department."

In its statement, the ACLU urged city officials to renegotiate the terms of the agreement with Flock to make it more favorable and protective of citizen privacy. The group also urged officials to "slow down" the process of getting the proposed $59,000 cameras approved for purchase.

Bloomington Police Department Crime and Intelligence Unit supervisor Jack McQueen gave a detailed overview of how the cameras would be deployed and used during a Jan. 25 meeting of the city's Technology Commission.

A draft policy laying out some internal specifics regarding the camera was provided to WGLT upon request.

This policy aims to assist "Bloomington Police Department in increasing public safety by providing a mechanism to assist in minimizing threats and risk of harm to the citizens and their property."

Police have said the cameras would aid efforts to solve or track cases of violent crime. An example: Someone suspected of a violent crime could flee the scene in a vehicle, but if the suspect's license plate information was added to a "hot list," police could receive alerts whenever a plate-reading camera saw it and attempt to intercept the person.

The efficacy of the cameras, however, is not necessarily proven, given the prohibitive nature of high costs until recently.

"Because of that, there isn't data from 10 years ago, or five years ago that says, you know, 'In Atlanta, Georgia, or in Chicago, Illinois, it's reduced crimes by 1,000 or 2,000,'" McQueen said.

Instead, he presented other examples to commission members, citing Decatur Police's use of such cameras to identify a vehicle involved in the shooting of two teenagers. Two suspects were arrested following that identification. BPD also used Flock cameras from "another local agency" to rule out a suspect in a March 7 shooting on Clearwater Avenue last year.

McQueen also emphasized that plate-reading cameras themselves are not new technology.

"Plate readers were utilized in the 90s up through the early 2000s," he said during the Jan. 25 meeting. "The largest advancement in plate readers for law enforcement.... is affordability. And the technology allows just about anybody to use them and have very little overhead in the way of maintenance."

At the time, Alderman Jamie Mathy, Bloomington's city representative to the Technology Commission, said he believed "pretty much every question that I've been asked to date, (McQueen) answered those questions already."

No members of the public attended the meeting in-person and the livestream of the meeting video was, at its peak, watched in real-time by nine people. The recording of the meeting had 93 views as of early Friday evening.

The proposal for the ALPR cameras was set to go before members of the Public Safety and Community Relations Board (PSCRB) on Thursday, but severe weather led to the meeting's cancellation. A date for the rescheduled meeting has not yet been set.

"We encourage the City Council to slow down this process and include the voice of residents in this critical decision," the ACLU chapter wrote in its statement. "There should be no hurry on this decision if the City of Bloomington is truly open to transparency and consideration of residents’ feedback."

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Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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