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License plate recognition cameras help nab criminals at impressive rates, despite privacy concerns

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) --License plate recognition cameras are being used right here in Colorado Springs and other parts of the state. And more agencies are using them, despite privacy concerns.

The typical American is recorded by security cameras 238 times a week, according to a 2020 report. Most of the filming happens while we drive, there's a camera about every mile.

In Castle Rock on the night of November 3rd, police say a burglar hit a storage unit. A camera caught the criminal and it all came down to numbers.

"Flock Safety cameras are currently involved in solving over 7% of reported crime in the U.S.," says Holly Beilin, a spokesperson for Flock Safety.

Flock safety license plate recognition cameras, also known as LPRs, are in more than 3,000 communities across the country. They're rapidly reshaping private security in neighborhoods and giving police surveillance tools that provide an automated watchdog recording system 24/7.

"We work with now over 50 law enforcement in Colorado," says Beilin.

Here's how they work. They are mounted on light poles, road signs, or traffic lights and capture thousands of images of plates that pass by. According to Beilin, they give officers a set of eyes when they aren't around with AI-powered technology that helps police arrive at a scene more informed and prepared. Instead of having them manually import license plate information, the cameras do it for them.

"Castle Rock was the only city in Colorado that reported a decrease in vehicle theft and they attributed that in large part to the instillation and deployment and smart usage of the Flock license plate readers," says Beilin.

Castle Rock Police Chief, Jack Cauley, says this technology is one piece of the puzzle that's making a difference.

"In 2021 we saw a 20% reduction and in that year we were the only agency in the state to have a reduction in auto thefts," says Chief Cauley. "In 2022 there was another 15% reduction on top of that."

Colorado Springs Police have also been using these cameras for about a year. They have 58 around the city, and they've helped officers solve a variety of crimes.

"From homicides all the way to motor vehicle thefts, missing persons, and things like that," says Commander Doug Trainer.

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado (ACLU) says police don't need records of every person's comings and goings.

"I think it is concerning too, to rely on the violation of civil rights and civil liberties for the entirety of us to support police doing their jobs maybe faster in some instances," says Anaya Robinson, a senior Policy Strategist with the ACLU.

And the ACLU worries about where all that data is going.

"Essentially we are looking at a situation where Flock is building a national surveillance database," says Robinson.

"Privacy is a legitimate concern," says Chief Cauley. "On our website, we actually have a portal and place you can go to see what we are doing with Flock. How many cameras do we have and how many hits do we have on a license plate."

Flock Safety says they have a 30-day data deletion policy and an encrypted cloud database to keep information protected.

As for police, this tool is helping them solve crime, as many police departments face staffing shortages.

"Roughly 9,000-10,000 hits of a stolen vehicle or stolen license plate so when you think of that vast amount of data and information for us to be able to focus on one particular person or thing is a little beyond our reach," says Commander Trainer. "We only have four motor vehicle detectives."

Police say fighting crime faces a lot of new challenges. But credit this tool for changing the game.

"It is something that I think the future holds for us," says Chief Cauley.

Including Castle Rock and Colorado Springs, about 50 agencies across the state use Flock Safety LPR cameras. And more here in southern Colorado are thinking about using them or something similar, including the Pueblo County Sheriff's Office and the Woodland Park Police Department.

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Brynn Carman

Brynn is an anchor on Good Morning Colorado. Learn more about Brynn here.


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