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Normal Police Department to begin using license-plate reading cameras

Normal Police Chief Steve Petrilli addresses the Normal Town Council during its meeting Monday, July 18, 2022 at Uptown Station.
Michele Steinbacher
Normal Police Chief Steve Petrilli addresses the Normal Town Council during its meeting Monday, July 18, 2022 at Uptown Station.

The Normal Police Department is the latest central Illinois force to adopt license-plate reading cameras.

With its 6-1 vote Monday, the Normal Town Council approved the policing tool, awarding a nearly $84,000 contract to distributor Flock Safety to lease 27 cameras, also known as ALPRs or LPRs, and to purchase data collected by the devices.

Council member Stan Nord was the lone “no” vote. Bloomington signed a similar contract earlier this year with Atlanta, Ga.-based Flock.

The controversial cameras have raised privacy concerns, with groups including the American Civil Liberties Union speaking against the widespread adoption of the technology, and its aggregate collection of personal data.

Also at Monday’s meeting, the council approved Rivian’s plan to erect a wind turbine at the Normal plant; and finalized plans for new home construction on the east side.

Council: Camera policy well researched 

Flock Safety spokesperson Josh Thomas told WGLT the ALPRs likely will be installed before October. They’ll be placed on poles, pointing at various Normal roadways.

The cameras are leased from Flock, but the data belongs to NPD. For the first year, the contract is $83,550. The contract is renewable annually at $72,000. Coverage includes Flock updating software and hardware of cameras, and maintenance costs.

Normal Police Chief Steve Petrilli told the council NPD knows data retention issues are a concern. He said NPD only will store data for one month, unless it gets pulled for a legitimate law enforcement purpose — such as a criminal investigation.

Mayor Chris Koos praised fellow council members for researching the issue, and taking questions related to privacy and use of the devices seriously.

“This has been an issue of concern for the community, and concern for the members of this council,” he said, noting elected officials spent a great deal of time and effort really trying to understand the potential issues.

On Monday, Chief Petrilli outlined policies he said will ensure transparency and accountability of the NPD program.

The ALPR cameras capture license plate data that connects to law enforcement databases of wanted and stolen vehicles, as well as the database for Amber and Silver alerts. This allows officers to have real-time information of criminal activity.

The agreed-on policy for Normal goes beyond Flock Safety’s standardized contract, with attention on protecting Normal's interests, said a number of council members.

“We’ve done our due diligence, that as a community, that as we move forward, we’ll make sure that it is being utilized in an appropriate way,” said council member Chemberly Cummings.

Fellow member Scott Preston noted the council had a work session about the topic, developed a written policy, and invited a Flock representative to come and answer questions.

But Ravi Duvvuri, on behalf of the local chapter of the ACLU, urged the council to be even more cautious.

With appropriate safeguards, the cameras can be an effective and appropriate tool to aid in law enforcement investigations, he said. “However, we cannot and we should not allow a heightened sense of fear and urgency to override logic and cause us to rush into hasty decisions that will approve, and even welcome in, unchecked and unaccountable pervasive surveillance,” he said.

That’s what the Flock Safety contract represents, he said. More clarity is needed about what kinds of criminal investigations would fall under NPD’s use of the ALPRs, said Duvvuri. How would it be used regarding immigration status, and what about women who now turn to Illinois for reproductive health access following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling, he said.

“ALPRs represent a serious threat to the privacy and security of women who may be coming to Illinois, and come to Bloomington-Normal, to seek health care, who may be at risk for having their data accessed by out-of-state agencies, who may criminalize the act of seeking an abortion” across state lines, said Duvvuri.

In a recent Wired article about such Post-Roe concerns, Flock is estimated to operate in more than 1,500 U.S. cities, with the ability to capture data from about 1 billion vehicles per month.

Petrilli later told WGLT that law enforcement agencies outside of Normal wouldn’t automatically gain access to NPD camera data. First, they’d need to present details of the criminal case they were investigating. In cases of women crossing state lines to seek an abortion, NPD would not release that data, he said.

During the meeting, Petrilli told the council that while NPD owns the data, there may be times Normal leaders choose to share data for the benefit of solving a crime.

Flock cameras "are in over 100 municipalities, just in Illinois,” said the chief, who also clarified that if the Flock system tagged a plate, that wouldn’t mean an officer immediately would pull the vehicle over.

“A simple alert by the system is not reasonable suspicion, and it is not probable cause to stop a vehicle,” Petrilli told the council. A vetting process would follow, and the intelligence would be used in making a decision, he said.

Petrilli said all sworn-NPD officers would have user IDs for the system, but that a workflow system would be in place limiting who would view the data. NPD would handle internal audits of the program, and its users, he added.

Everyone on the council agreed that NPD could use the technology to better investigate crime. However, Nord, said while he generally trusts police, he doesn’t think Normal has adequate policies in place to catch “bad eggs” who might abuse access to ALPR data.

“With the tools, there’s the ability for it to be misused,” said Nord. “There’s nobody outside the town that’s going to oversee this.”

Nord noted that Bloomington has an outside police review board, to provide accountability, something Normal lacks.

Wind turbine OK’d for Rivian property

The council also voted to allowRivian to install a large wind turbine on the east side of the plant. Nord was the only “no” vote.

The turbine, which will stand on the test drive track, will be about 500 feet-tall, and have 3.4 megawatts in generating capacity.

As part of the approval, the council OK’d an amended Rivian site plan with a special use permit.

More new construction for east side

The council voted unanimously to approve the final plat of the 11th addition to the Vineyards subdivision.

That will make way for 23 additional single-family homes in the southeast corner of the subdvision on Shephard Road, east of Airport Road.

In other business, the council:

  • Celebrated that in June, the town retired more than $8 million in debt.
  • Amended the town’s fiscal 2021-2022 budget to reflect budget transfers, a routine step as each fiscal year closes.
  • Donated property at 316 Glenn Avenue to YouthBuild McLean County. Earlier this year, the town purchased the dilapidated home that sat empty for about 20 years.
  • Awarded Rowe Construction a $77,000 contract to upgrade curbs and sidewalks near Landmark Drive and Parkway Plaza. The move is aimed to improve the intersection for people with disabilities.
  • Approved a site plan and final plat for Yordy Mini-Storage, at the southwest corner of West College and Interstate 55.
  • Reappointed Julie Hile to the Connect Transit board, and appointed Robert Porter to the town’s historic preservation commission.   
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Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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