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Lafayette officials detail plans to install cameras around the city to track license plates

Chief Galloway details plans for cameras to track license plates across city (WBAA News/Ben Thorp)

The city of Lafayette detailed plans Thursday to install ten cameras around the city that will help police track license plates connected to a crime.

At a press conference featuring Mayor Tony Roswarski, Lafayette Police Chief Scott Galloway, and a representative with Flock Safety - the company contracted for the cameras - officials took questions about the rollout.

Galloway said that a 9-month pilot use of license plate readers - or ALPRs - has led to over 40 arrests.

“So why are we going to use license plate readers? It’s simple,” he said. “Criminals are mobile and ALPR technology has been used effectively to reduce crime.”

According to officials, the cameras can be used in two ways: either as an alert system that notifies police when a license plate number that has been flagged in connection with a crime passes by - or as a database where police can search for license plates retroactively.

A slide from Flock Safety’s presentation showing their license plate search database.
A slide from Flock Safety’s presentation showing their license plate search database

Roswarski said the city began with five cameras but will now increase that number to ten, with plans to ramp up in the future.

“I fully expect in 2023 we’ll purchase additional cameras until we get the proper amount out there to be able to put a pattern together that we believe reaches maximum efficiency,” he said.

Each camera comes with a $100 installation fee and a $2,500 annual fee through Flock Safety.

Bailey Quintrell is the Vice President of External Affairs for Flock Safety. He said the system is already being used by 1,500 cities across the country, and emphasized that the technology is not used for traffic enforcement or facial recognition.

During his presentation, Quintrell showed reporters photographs from a searchable database that will allow police to adjust filters that include everything from vehicle type, in or out of state plates, and the timeframe in which the data was collected.

“The footage the system collects is owned by the city and never sold or shared by Flock because it’s not ours to do that with,” he said. Any photos of license plates are also deleted after 30 days unless they become part of an active investigation.

“This relatively short retention period ensures that images of cars that aren’t on a hot list or aren’t part of a crime are out of the system in 30 days,” Quintrell said. “We help police departments remove the potential for human bias because we’re totally focused on license plates and vehicle details,” he said.

Quintrell took pains throughout the presentation to make clear to attendees that the license plate capture technology is not facial recognition. Concerns have been raised both locally and nationally about the use of facial recognition technology - both because of human and software errors leading to false positives in identifying suspects, and because of how some software companies have created photo databases that include images from social media.

Bailey Quintrell, a representative for Flock Safety (WBAA News/Ben Thorp)
Bailey Quintrell, a representative for Flock Safety (WBAA News/Ben Thorp)

When asked about the distinction, Quintrell said that license plates are “objective.”

“The vehicle is objective, the license plate is a stamped piece of metal,” he said. “We feel that’s a very specific way we can be totally objective and very helpful to solving crime. We intentionally aim the cameras to not capture people and intentionally don’t build facial recognition because we can be very successful without it.”

Quintrell was also pressed to explain how the cameras work by Lafayette City Council members Bob Downing and Nancy Nargi.

“If somebody is crossing the street, you’re not real interested in taking pictures of that?” Nargi asked.

“The cameras are triggered off of motion, so if a car drives by without a license plate, we still get a picture,” Quintrell responded. “So someone could walk in front of a camera – the search filters aren’t set up to make it easy to find that, it’s not the purpose of the camera. So I can’t say it’s impossible.”

Officials took questions after the presentation from reporters about how citizens will have their privacy protected - and what kind of oversight might keep the technology from being used to surveil vehicles not connected to a crime.

“Everybody has a username and a password,” Galloway said. Later, he added, “There’s an audit trail for any officer who runs any plate.”

Officials declined to specify exactly where cameras will be placed across the city because they don’t want people to be able to avoid driving past them.

“It’s important to be transparent, but it’s also important to catch criminals,” Roswarski said.

As part of the rollout, the city will open a “transparency portal” outlining the number of active cameras, the amount of vehicle data being collected, and the outside organizations with access to that data.

Reporters also asked why the public wasn’t alerted about the cameras when the pilot program began.

“Does that create a precedent where the city or police department rolls out more technology without the public initially knowing about it?” WLFI’s Joe Paul asked.

“We wanted to make sure this was something we would use,” Galloway replied.