By WILL BRUMLIVE
PAXTON — As Deputy Chief of the Rantoul Police Department, Justin Bowes knows firsthand the value that automated license plate reading cameras can bring to solving crimes. The northern Champaign County village has 25 of them, and they’ve already helped police solve a number of serious crimes, including multiple shootings.
As a resident of Paxton and a downtown Paxton business owner, Booz can see potential value in bringing the technology to the Ford County seat as well. Bouse, a former Paxton councilman, weighed in on the topic during last week’s adjourned meeting of the Paxton City Council, which is considering a proposal to acquire license plate readers from Flock Safety, an Atlanta-based company that has already brought them to more of 2,000 communities in the U.S. and nearly 150 in Illinois, including Rantoul.
“It’s a useful technology,” Bowes said. “Almost all of central Illinois has now acquired at least a few cameras in their communities.”
Councilman Eric Evans asked Bowes to share some thoughts about license plate readers while Bowes attended the Oct. 26 meeting with his wife, Courtney, to seek approval of a rezoning agreement for improvements to be made to a downtown building. which they own. Council members plan to learn more about the technology — directly from Flock Safety — during a meeting of the council’s public safety committee scheduled for Tuesday night.
Police Chief Coy Cornett first floated the idea of acquiring license plate readers from Flock Safety during the Oct. 11 council meeting. Cornett said Flock Safety will install them for a one-time fee of $750 each, then charge an annual service fee of $2,500 per camera, under a proposed two-year agreement. Cornett said he would like to acquire four of the motion-activated, solar-powered stationary cameras, each to be installed on “major boulevards” around the edge of the city.
Mayor Bill Ingold said Monday that he doubts the council will be ready to approve the agreement until its next meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 8, because he expects more research to be done first. If approved by the council, the agreement would put Paxton on a growing list of communities to acquire license plate readers — a list that already includes Champaign, Mahomet and Rantoul in Champaign County, as well as Watseka, Gilman and Milford areas in Iroquois County.
“Urbana is kind of the lone holdout in the area,” Bowes said.
The Rantoul Police Department was among the first in the area to get license plate readers, Bouse said, after identifying them in April 2021 as “an emerging technology that we thought could be useful as a tool in Rantoul.” Bouse said a vendor search found Flock Safety to be “the most intuitive and useful license plate reader on the market.”
Once Rantoul received the initial 12 cameras from Flock Safety — placing them in locations throughout the community — it didn’t take long for the technology to pay off, Bouse said. Within a month, they helped solve a July 4 shooting in which five people were injured, as well as a drive-by shooting in late July in which 60 rounds were fired into a residence.
“Within two minutes of that (passing) we got the license plate number off the vehicle,” Bowes said. “The vehicle went down in Urbana and crashed at the Urbana Country Club. We arrested four people and took three guns off the streets – one was a fully automatic – so we very quickly saw the benefit of these license plate readers in the Rantoul community.”
Since then, Rantoul police have acquired 13 more cameras.
“You really can’t get into town or leave town without going through one of these cameras,” Bowes said. “We’ve also partnered with Flock on their ‘launch’ technology called Raven, which will be deployed in the spring of ’23.”
Councilman Paul Crutcher said during the Oct. 11 council meeting that he is concerned about the technology possibly infringing on citizens’ privacy. Bowes noted last week, however, that the right “guardrails” and policies can be put in place to ensure data is never misused.
In Rantoul, Bouse said, there are rules detailing how and when officers can access the license plate reader database, and the data is kept in the system for only 30 days unless it is used for evidence of a crime.
“(Officers) can only search (the system) based on a record,” Bowes added, “or they have to have a felony to go and search that database.”
Bouse also noted that “everything is fully audited.”
“You can pull an audit report of which signs were searched and for what reason they were searched,” Bowes said.
Rantoul also requires its officers to independently verify information obtained through Flock’s safety cameras before using that information as probable cause to stop a vehicle, Bouse said.
“There needs to be independent validation,” Bowes said. “You can’t just use the Flock camera saying it’s a stolen vehicle as a reason for a stop. They should independently verify this. … So this gives another layer of protection against police officers stopping vehicles based solely on a Flock hit.”
Ingold asked Bouse if the data generated by the cameras is secure. Bouse said the data is “fully secure,” requiring two-factor authentication to access the system, and is stored in accordance with federal criminal justice regulations.
“There’s a lot of layers to the defense and a lot of cybersecurity built into it,” Bowes said.
Ingold then asked Bouse if it would be illegal for Flock Safety to sell some of the data or otherwise disperse it. Bouse said that would be illegal, and he noted that the data would be owned by the police department, not Flock Safety, and the company wouldn’t have access to it either, just like the police department.
“They don’t have access to that database themselves,” Bowes said of the company.
Crutcher asked Bouse if the data is shared between law enforcement agencies, and Bouse said it could be.
“If we have a case, we can run a record into that (searchable database) and see if it hit other cameras in other areas,” Bowes said. “It was very helpful in Champaign County. … There are times when we can really determine, if a serious crime has been committed, where that car is going and things like that.”
Since Flock Safety was founded in 2017, its cameras have helped solve about 600 to 700 crimes a day in the U.S., Flock Safety spokeswoman Holly Beilein said last month. They turn on and take a photo only when a vehicle passes them, capturing license plates and vehicle features, but not people or faces, she said.
Beilein said Flock Safety typically installs the license plate readers on its own poles it installs, but existing infrastructure can also be used if needed. They’re lightweight and solar-powered, don’t require new electrical infrastructure, and in winter, when the days are shorter, can run on battery backup, she added. They also don’t need Wi-Fi service to work, she said.
In addition to installing the cameras and providing data storage, Flock Safety will provide camera maintenance and any necessary upgrades under the proposed agreement with the city — “which means police can just focus on solving crimes,” Beilein said.