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‘Game changer': Pa. PD’s newly installed tech helps solve crime, enhances police response

Allentown PD Chief Charles Roca said the Flock Safety LPRs and gunshot detection devices have already led to the arrests of two suspects in a fatal shooting

Flock license plate reader

Flock Safety

By Lindsay Weber
The Morning Call

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — This year, Allentown installed and activated dozens of devices across the city designed to help police respond to crime quickly by detecting gunshots and reading and identifying license plates.

According to police Chief Charles Roca, the technology, financed by a $1.5 million grant from a state agency and approved by City Council, has been a “game changer.”

Roca said findings from the technology now factor into investigations of practically all major crimes in the city. Recently, the devices helped police arrest two suspects in a fatal shooting, the department announced this month.

While advocates say the technology helps police respond more quickly to violent crime and solve cases more efficiently, some critics say the devices could be used to improperly surveil people.

Here’s what you need to know.

How does the technology work?

The $1.5 million, two-year contract with Flock Safety provides Allentown with 67 automatic license plate readers throughout the city, as well as an unspecified number of gunshot detection devices specifically in the Center City region.

The Flock Safety license plate reader cameras instantly capture detailed data about license plates and vehicles, and automatically alert police when a stolen or wanted car passes by.

Raven gunshot detection devices are precise enough to detect the difference between a gunshot and a firework, Flock Safety spokesperson Holly Beilin said at a news conference in February. The devices, upon detecting a gunshot, alert police and record and save a five-second audio clip for use as evidence

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Data collected on Flock Safety devices is available on an encrypted cloud system that is searchable to law enforcement. In addition to police departments, private businesses and homeowners associations can also buy and use Flock Safety devices to monitor their areas.

According to a news release from Flock Safety, both of these devices helped Allentown police arrest two suspects involved in a fatal June 1 shooting at Fountain Park that left 25-year-old Angel Martinez-Velez dead. Officers who responded to the scene used nearby cameras and license plate readers to identify a car that belonged to a suspect, and responded to their residence, where they located and seized both suspects’ cars. Grelvis Estevez Cabrera, 27, and Carlos Nathaniel Landesta Agramonte, 18, were arrested June 5 and face criminal charges including conspiracy to commit homicide.

Can the community weigh in?

Roca said the investment in Flock Safety technology was “game changing” for the department, allowing it to collect better, detailed evidence to find criminals and solve crimes.

It does more than just allow officers to respond quickly to an incident, he said — the recordings can also be used in court to testify and prosecute a suspect.

“We embrace technology because it helps us in our effort to do good police work,” Roca said.

Flock Safety has come under criticism, however, from groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, which accused Flock of creating a “mass surveillance network.” Police officers with access to Flock’s cloud network can search for data across the Flock system, including footage and recordings from outside their jurisdiction.

That search function has been used to find criminals who attempt to flee and evade police, according to promotional videos from Flock Safety, but the ACLU argues it could be used for more nefarious reasons without adequate oversight from the public.

“The more license plate readers there are, the more granular the picture is of where you’re going and how you’re living your life, and the police shouldn’t be retaining records about people going about their lives who aren’t suspected of any crimes,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU.

However, Flock officials say there are safeguards in place to protect against surveillance and improper use of their devices and data network.

For example, data is only stored on their network for 30 days and police officers must log a reason when they search through the database. A city council could then audit the police searches to ensure they are legitimate.

“We are not spying, we are not building a police state, we are being respectful to people’s constitutional rights,” Roca said.

Allentown City Council unanimously approved the Flock Safety expenditure at a meeting last year in which some residents expressed conflicted thoughts about the technology.

Most said that they saw it as a necessary investment to prevent crime in Allentown — the city saw 16 homicides in 2023 — but some said that the millions could be better spent on antipoverty initiatives that could help prevent crime from happening in the first place.

“Every moment after a gunshot is critical, so anything that can allow police or whomever is doing the investigation to be able to find a perpetrator faster is a benefit to the community,” Pas Simpson, an antiviolence community activist, said in an interview. “What we always want is continual checks and balances on how this technology is being used. As long as there’s community input when talking to law enforcement, when talking to the powers that be within the city, then it’s only going to be beneficial.”

How will it change policing in Allentown?

Flock Safety is part of a larger modernizing of the police department, according to Roca. The city recently received $4 million from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, which, in addition to the Flock Safety devices, is also paying for car and body cameras, police vehicle upgrades and other technical improvements.

Allentown also received an addition $1 million federal grant to fund new police cruisers, software and equipment to document crime scenes and test illegal drugs.

City police also are looking to begin construction on a $28 million rehabilitation and addition to its headquarters in the near future — Roca said the city recently issued a request for proposals for a construction manager to oversee the project.

Lastly, city police plan to launch an online public crime dashboard with detailed, neighborhood-level information about crime in the city, though Roca could not provide an exact date. That data could help police evaluate the efficacy of Flock Safety’s technology when its contract is up for a renewal in 2026, he said.

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