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Iowa PD uses LPR tech to locate missing people, stolen vehicles

The Flock Safety LPR system, installed about a year ago in South Sioux City, has helped police track down 20 stolen vehicles and aided in 3 homicide investigations

Flock Safety.jpg

Flock Safety

By Dolly Butz
Sioux City Journal, Iowa

SOUTH SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Roughly a year ago, 35 cameras were affixed to black poles on major thoroughfares in South Sioux City.

The cameras, which capture high resolution images of the backs of vehicles and license plate data, are a component of Flock Safety’s license plate recognition, or LPR, system.

Since the LPR cameras were implemented last April with City Council approval, the Police Department has located 20 stolen vehicles and aided in three outside agency homicide investigations, including the fatal stabbing of a Dakota Dunes woman in August.

“It really helped us, ultimately, with providing information to attempt to get him located,” Police Lt. Jeanette McFee said of Alfredo Castellanos-Rosales.

The 39-year-old Sioux City man has pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder, contributing to the neglect of a child and contributing to the abuse of a child in connection with the April 25 stabbing death of 23-year-old Jordan Beardshear in her apartment at The Wellington at the Dunes complex.

Flock Safety’s LPR system allows South Sioux City police officers to use their laptops and cellphones to query identifying vehicle features, such as color, make, bumper sticker, top rack and pickup box. It also sends an alert to law enforcement when a vehicle on the “hot list” is detected in the area. The system leverages the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a computerized index of missing persons and criminal information.

“If a license plate is entered into NCIC, once it passes one of those cameras, an internal system notifies us that possibly the owner has a warrant, or there’s possibly a missing person inside this vehicle,” McFee said.

‘We’re not trying to be big brother’

Flock Safety’s cameras, which are in operation in more than 4,000 cities in 42 states, have come under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union, which has asked citizens to reach out to local elected officials and law enforcement to “pump the brakes” on the use of what is calls a “nationwide mass-surveillance system.”

“Such a system provides even small-town sheriffs access to a sweeping and powerful mass-surveillance tool, and allows big actors like federal agencies and large urban police departments to access the comings and goings of vehicles in even the smallest of towns,” the ACLU said in a February 2023 report published on its website.

South Sioux City Police Chief Ed Mahon said he’s only heard from a couple of individuals who are concerned about “big brother” potentially watching in South Sioux City. He said only one person he talked with was “strongly opposed” to the cameras.

“We’re not trying to be big brother. We just want another tool. We can reach out and get information we really need for the worst crimes,” he said.

Mahon said Flock Safety’s LPR system doesn’t use facial recognition technology, the ability to match a human face from an image to a database of faces.

“It’s just to the rear of the car,” he said of what the cameras capture. “Occasionally, we’ll get a front plate, but I don’t know if you could really identify anybody out of the front.”

When searching the data LPR cameras capture, McFee said officers have to report what they’re looking for. She said Nebraska state statute requires that searches be related to criminal activity. She said the images taken by the cameras “are gone” from a secure cloud server after 30 days.

“If I’m driving down the street as a patrol officer, I’m seeing all kinds of license plates. That’s exactly what these cameras are getting,” she said. “They’re not telling me whose car that is. I don’t know that. I would have to do further investigation — running the plate and doing all that before I know whose vehicle that would be. If someone’s not involved in a crime, I’m not looking at their car.”

Crimefighting tool

Mahon said Flock Safety’s LPR cameras, which are solar and battery-powered, are “a really good tool” for his department.

Even the dispatchers have access to the internet-based system, which allows them to assist officers in locating a vehicle when an alert comes in.

“I think there’s been a tremendous amount of interest from the officers and a lot of activity. It’s one of the high-tech items that really the officers use all the time,” Mahon said.

South Sioux City is leasing the camera system from Flock Safety at a cost of around $100,000 over a two-year period. American Rescue Plan Act funding is covering the cost of the cameras, which Flock Safety provides 24/7 technical support for. Dakota County also has four LPR cameras.

“From my perspective, they’ve been working extremely well. We’ve found several missing cars. We found the issues with murder cases here that happened in other areas. We’re glad to see that it’s expanding and covering many more cities across the county,” South Sioux City Administrator Lance Hedquist said of the Flock system. “I think it’s done great.”

Since the cameras were installed, McFee said the system helped police locate six missing people who were entered into the NCIC, including a juvenile female who was found in an adult male suspect’s vehicle. She said the cameras even led to the identification of individuals who were passing counterfeit bills in Sioux City and South Sioux City.

“We found that the vehicle had been a rental vehicle and, in the last month, it had gone from Michigan to Iowa , through Illinois, Des Moines, Nebraska, and back through Illinois and Wisconsin to Michigan. It’s basically a big counterfeiting ring, where they’re getting items with these counterfeit bills at different businesses,” McFee said. “We have nationwide access, so any agency that has a Flock camera we can search. I was able to search this particular vehicle going through all of these areas.”

South Sioux City saw a 6.3% decrease in serious and violent crime last year, as well as a 6.7% decrease in total crime. Motor vehicle thefts dropped by nearly 44%, from 41 in 2022 to 23 in 2023. Mahon is unsure whether LPR cameras are a contributing factor in the decline, but he hopes they are deterring criminals.

“If we could afford it, I’d love to double the number of cameras and really put out there, ‘If you’re going to do this, don’t come here, because we’re going to do everything we can to arrest you,’” he said.

Are LPR cameras coming to Sioux City ?

Last April, the Sioux City Council approved a resolution allowing South Sioux City to install two of its LPR cameras on the Iowa side of the Siouxland Veterans Memorial Bridge.

During a Feb. 17 operating budget session, Sioux City Councilwoman Julie Schoenherr asked Police Chief Rex Mueller if his department intends to pursue LPR cameras.

“Right now, the state is kind of lumping LPRs into ATE (automated traffic enforcement), so we’re unsure where that’s going to go. We’re monitoring that,” said Mueller, who mentioned there are some private LPR cameras operating in the city. “Depending how automated traffic enforcement comes out, we think that’s a positive resource. But what we’re also looking at is some of the automated traffic enforcement companies out there actually have LPR capabilities. So rather than just putting in LPR cameras, you have ATE cameras that can also have that capability.”

Sioux City Police Capt. Ryan Bertrand told The Journal the police department is going to ask the council for permission to apply for a Byrne-JAG grant to fund the purchase of LPR cameras. He said the police department is partnering with the Woodbury County Sheriff’s Office and Tri-State Drug Task Force on the grant request, which will be in the neighborhood of $125,000. Bertrand said there are half a dozen other LPR systems, but he said Flock Safety’s is the one the police department spent the most time researching.

“For quality, network, bang for the buck, affordability, Flock is the one we’re looking at right now. It’s a subscription-based kind of service. Flock owns the camera, hardware and equipment. They maintain the equipment. If the equipment breaks, there’s no charge,” he said. “If every police agency in the United States had a Flock system, you’d have an incredibly powerful intelligence network. Your crime-fighting abilities would be amazing.”

Bertrand said as few as 10 LPR cameras could have an impact in the city if they were put in the right places. Exactly how many cameras Sioux City could acquire is up in the air, as the grant funding is not guaranteed. Bertrand said the cameras would be placed in public locations where anybody has the right to be.

“There’s no Fourth Amendment concerns. There’s no privacy concerns. The license plate readers focus on license plates. They’re not capturing data 24/7. They’re not full-time surveillance cameras that way,” said Bertrand, who said he thinks more people today expect businesses and property owners to have working cameras. “People actually are embracing technology that way. Most people want to be safe. They want to be protected.”


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