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6 takeaways from a conversation with Flock Safety, the company whose cameras could be coming to Bloomington

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Had things gone according to plan on Feb. 11, the Bloomington City Council would have been set to vote Monday night on a potential contract with Atlanta-based security company Flock Safety to give police 10 license-plate reading cameras to be placed at various points within the city.

Police have said the cameras, which take pictures of vehicles and use machine learning to determine license plate information, will help them solve crimes faster while using fewer man hours. Critics, including the Central Illinois Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, contend the proposed agreement doesn't do enough to protect city residents' privacy.

City council members were first planning to vote on the proposed contract Jan. 10, when it showed up as an agenda item seemingly without warning, before members voted 6-2 to delay approving the contract until the city's Technology Commission and Public Safety and Community Relations Board both had a chance to review the proposal.

Technology Commission members heard a detailed presentation about the cameras on Jan. 25, but at the PSCRB's Feb. 11 meeting, there were not enough members present to meet a quorum. That rescheduled meeting is now set for Wednesday, Feb. 23.

In the meantime, WGLT spoke with Josh Thomas, Flock Safety's vice president of external affairs, about the company and how it operates in general. An edited and condensed version of that interview is included beneath six key moments from that conversation.

1. The motion-activated cameras could, in theory, take a photo of a person — but that photo isn't searchable, Thomas said.

The way the cameras work is that the company owns "a pole — usually a 14-foot pole with two feet underground where we put a camera at the top and point it at the street. It takes pictures of the back of a car as it drives by. The information our cameras can glean from that are the type of car, the make of the car, the color and the body style — coupe, sedan truck or van — any distinguishing marks like roof racks or bumper stickers, after-market wheels, as well as the license plate and the state of the plate. Yes, if humans are walking in the middle of the street, a picture could be taken of a human — that is true. However, they won't show up in the search results because you're searching for cars and car descriptions. So, there isn't anything identifiable about humans or people in the system."

2. Law enforcement wasn't Flock Safety's initial customer base. Private citizens, small businesses, home owner associations and neighborhood watch-type groups were.

The company's founder "didn't have a background in law enforcement — in fact, none of our initial, first employees did. We all just lived in neighborhoods in the greater Atlanta metro area. So that was the first customer we started selling to ... really, just community activists who said, 'We've got to do something about crime in our community.' From there, we started selling also to small businesses and really any private entity that had a road they cared about. What was really important is that we never wanted anybody to think that they should go 'do something' about a crime that had been committed; it was always essential that they provide this evidence to law enforcement. That's what was really interesting: Initially selling to HOAs and businesses, then police were using this technology to go clear cases. And they said, 'Hey, this is great that these neighborhoods are using this powerful technology, but we've got a couple of crime hot spots — can we put this into certain locations?' That's when we started selling directly to law enforcement: When they came to us about four years ago and said, 'This is great technology. It's 10 times cheaper than anything else on the market. Let (us) put in areas where (we) need it.'

3. A contract between a municipality, police department or individual and Flock is a subscription model service, similar to Netflix.

"So, instead of selling technology to people ... we actually go out and upgrade the hardware. We upgrade to whatever the latest-and-greatest hardware is for our customers, so as long as they're under contract, they will always have the newest and greatest technology. It's a subscription model — annual contracts, the same way that you would subscribe to a cell phone plan, or Netflix, or whatever else. As soon as your contract is up, you can renew or not. If you don't renew, we'll go out and collect the hardware and bring it back to one of our warehouses."

4. That contract can also include an add-on service called 'Advanced Search.'

The add-on package allows agencies to take a photo of a vehicle captured by another camera — think a cell phone or a Ring doorbell — and upload it into Flock's system for search purposes. Industry periodical Government Technology notes the feature "costs $2,500 and $5,000 a year, depending on how many of Flock Safety's cameras the agency operates." Added Thomas, "The basic package is: There's an investigation, you go find a suspect license plate and go investigate. The Advanced Search package uses a couple of other pieces of machine learning to help (police) uncover more evidence in their investigation."

In a statement from communication on behalf of BPD provided Tuesday said BPD is "not seeking the additional search capabilities at this time. This decision was budget-based."

5. Despite protests that the cameras could be used to surveil already over-policed communities, the company touts its products as a means of reducing 'human bias.'

"People are understandably are concerned with human biases. Some of the misconceptions people have are what this will do for historically marginalized members of (a) community. Will this target different groups, different personality types, people with different religious backgrounds? The answer is no. This is actually capturing object details about a suspect car, not people at all. We don't focus on people, or faces — the types of things that people get wrong. Human biases can creep into situations, so we're trying to mitigate that by giving you different types of evidence that reduce our... inclination toward bias. What we can do is change the narrative: It's no longer 'somebody is suspicious,' or going off a 'gut instinct.' No, you know a car is stolen because you just got an alert: This is an objectively known stolen vehicle and we're able to verify that with a picture. Now, you can go follow these objective details and go arrest people who deserve it and stop focusing on anything else besides that."

6. The company touts deference to 'democratically elected officials' and says it encourages meetings ahead of time, before a city council or other group vote to adopt the technology.

Here's what Thomas had to say: "We actually have a team — I'm on this team — called the external affairs team who works with chiefs of police and city councils to make sure that everybody has the education they need about what this technology does and doesn't do. We think the best path to the success of this is, if a chief is interested and there's a need to help stop crime in their community, first and foremost, go before council and share what your plans are, answer any questions that they may have. Secondly, hold open forums with the community — engage active or actual members who live in that community and what they think about it. What would be their concerns? Hear them out and hopefully address those through either new policies or new uses of technology — maybe it's just deployment of where they want to place the technology (that is concerning). It's just all those types of things that lead us to believe that yes, you should always get public input."

Here's the City's statement on why meetings with council members or forums with the public weren't held before Jan. 10: "In other cities, camera implementation is a steep learning curve. Hence their need to bring in Flock reps to help explain the technology and how it works. At BPD we are very familiar with this technology, it's legal uses and the outreach efforts needed as they go into residential areas. For these reasons, we didn't hold one-on-one meetings with Council and a Flock representative. We have been able to answer each question from the public as well as the elected officials. We also distilled down the critical pieces of the project (from looking at other city's proposals) and sent them to council ahead of that first council meeting." A three-hour public question-and-answer session was held by the department online on Feb. 1.

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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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