EVANSVILLE — The Evansville Police Department says the majority of automatic license plate-reading cameras it received earlier this year are now installed throughout the city.

The cameras, manufactured by Flock Safety, were purchased by the EPD in February through a $125,000 state  grant. The Evansville City Council unanimously approved a money transfer in February to quicken the purchase and installation of the cameras, according to public records. 

The Courier & Press requested a list of camera locations, but Evansville Police Department spokeswoman Sgt. Anna Gray said the department would not provide it due to vandalism fears. 

“We don’t want to say where they are because people may try to shoot at them," Gray said. "CenterPoint (utility company) gets calls everyday to repair lights that got shot out.”

Flock Safety - an automated surveillance company founded in 2017, and which is now valued at $3.5 billion - manufactures small, black cameras that function similarly to a Ring doorbell. The devices mount to traffic lights and utility poles with an accompanying solar panel. 

Original Story:Evansville police to install license-plate cameras in 'high-crime' areas

Gray said the department installed the cameras in “high-crime areas” and on highways and roads that provide easy access into, and out of, Evansville. 

Four of the cameras can be seen on each side of the intersection at Fulton and Diamond avenues. Two more can be viewed off the eastbound lanes on the Lloyd Expressway, between the stop lights for Burkhardt Road and Cross Pointe Boulevard. Another is off the southbound lanes of U.S. 41 near Virginia Street, right before the intersection with the Lloyd Expressway.

EPD did not disclose the process for determining which “high-crime areas” received cameras.

“What I do know is that the decision (was) made by several people sitting down and talking about our high-crime areas and hotspots,” Gray said in February. “That said, that’s a lot of cameras. So our focus isn’t solely going to be on those areas.”

License plate reading cameras have been around for years, but the rise of powerful new software has led to an explosion in use among local enforcement agencies. Advocates have raised privacy and equity concerns about how police deploy these technologies.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the cameras can contribute to disparities in the levels of police surveillance between low-income neighborhoods and higher-income areas.

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Flock spokeswoman Holly Beilin told the Courier & Press the camera system protects privacy and the company argues it boosts security for all neighborhoods. 

“Flock Safety was really founded with the principle that we can balance both increased security and protecting our personal liberties, including our right to privacy,” Beilin said.

How the cameras work

Beilin said the system does not record video, and Flock cameras are incapable of recording vehicle speed or automatically tracking vehicles that run red lights.

But, Flock cameras use artificial intelligence to gather more vehicle data than typical license plate reading cameras, according to Flock Safety's proposal to supply cameras to the San Diego County Sheriff's Office.

In optimal conditions, each person who drives past a motion-activated Flock camera has their vehicle’s color, make, model and license plate recorded. The company says its machine learning system can even detect a vehicle’s aftermarket alterations.

Beyond just searching license plates, EPD will have the ability to search for vehicles based on make, model and color — if EPD opts into Flock's TALON program, license plate data captured in Evansville could be shared across the country. Likewise, EPD could tap into data captured far outside its jurisdiction. 

According to Flock, the TALON system captures 500 million scans per month. 

Without TALON, Flock's cameras compare captured vehicle data to government-maintained crime databases and any "hot lists" EPD sets up itself. If a vehicle matches a stolen or wanted car - or a description manually added to EPD's lookout list - Flock sends alerts in real time to officers’ laptops and phones.

Officers can use "Google search-like features" to find out which vehicles were present at the scene of an incident, company documents state. According to Gray, EPD’s primary goal is to use the cameras to crackdown on gun violence. 

“Our focus with these cameras are the violent crimes in the area,” Gray said. “When we heard that this is a tool that we can use, we were super excited about it.”

Surveillance a concern for privacy advocates

The cameras hit at the core of an ongoing debate about privacy and the extent to which Americans are comfortable with government surveillance in the pursuit of public safety. 

Jane Henegar, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Indiana, said she believes there are too few rules governing the use of police surveillance technology, and she is wary of relying on the assurances of private companies that these products are being used responsibly. 

"We always advocate for clear rules so that the public knows what the potential uses are of a technology," Henegar said. "How is it being deployed? Where is it being deployed? How long is the data being used? Kept?"

Many of these questions remain publicly unanswered in Evansville. Beilin said the company takes steps to ensure its systems don't disproportionately surveil low-income communities and communities of color, but there are few regulations governing police use of license plate cameras. 

"The departments own their data," Beilin said. 

Because the system can be automated – notifying officers in real time that a vehicle potentially contains an armed and dangerous suspect – privacy advocates fear something as simple as a software glitch could lead to a guns-drawn situation for an innocent driver if a camera system incorrectly labels a vehicle as stolen or its driver as a violent fugitive.

Flock Safety told the Courier & Press the system has numerous safeguards in place to ensure cases of mistaken identity don’t happen. 

At the time it was first disclosed EPD would receive the cameras, Gray said the department understood the public’s privacy concerns, and emphasized the cameras are part of a broader strategy to reduce violent crime in Evansville. 

"Even if it solves one violent crime, that's worth its weight," Gray said. 

The EPD also said it hopes to use the cameras to solve missing persons cases, or quickly return an endangered individual to safety in Silver Alert or Amber Alert cases. 

Henegar said she's spoken to police departments about surveillance tools and how they're used in policing. She said that while curbing violent crime is generally the reason given for increased surveillance, the technology often ends up being deployed for different uses. 

"Despite all their promises to only use it to intervene or solve violent crime, that's not the way that it always works out," Henegar said. "In fact, a lot of studies have suggested that it's a very uneven tool." 

The EPD has stated the cameras will not be used to hand out traffic citations, and Gray said the focus will be preventing and solving cases of violent crime.

"This isn't going to be a tool where somebody's sitting there watching a monitor and watching traffic go by," Gray said. "We have to have a criminal aspect of why we want information on a specific plate... Obviously, we're looking forward and hoping that it'll help solve some crimes down the road."

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