License Plate Readers: Newest Crime Fighting Tool or Oversold?

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license reader

license plate reader. courtesy Flock Safety

Do license plate readers and other advanced forms of technological surveillance actually live up to their manufacturers’ claims that they reduce crime?

Experts say the evidence isn’t convincing, reports Wired.

Establishing a causal relationship between any given variable and fluctuating crime rates is difficult, according to Alex Piquero, a professor of criminology at the University of Texas, Dallas.

“I am not saying that the readers did not have an effect on crime—it is just that we cannot attribute any reduction in crime to the readers themselves,” Piquero said.

Flock Safety, an Atlanta-based startup whose website describes its license reader as the “only security camera that stops neighborhood crime,” has claimed that  cameras it installed in one Georgia county caused a dramatic drop in crime.

Officers from the Cobb County Police Department installed 13 solar-powered automatic license-plate readers from Flock Safety. The company’s cameras,typically cost around $2,000 a year each to rent and operate. They were  provided to Cobb County free of charge.

During the first six months the license plate readers were installed, Stuart VanHoozer, Cobb County’s deputy chief of police, says the number of reported crimes like robbery and nonresidential burglary dropped over 50 percent compared with the same period the year before.

Between March and August, the department recorded 50 instances of “entering auto,” Georgia’s term for breaking and entering into a vehicle, compared with 138 over the same time in 2018.

“It was not a decrease that we expected to see,” says VanHoozer.

Flock Safety—a former Y Combinator startup backed by Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund—is one of several newer technology firms selling surveillance tech to private citizens. Josh Thomas, the head of marketing at Flock Safety, says the company generally targets groups like homeowners’ associations, whose members pay for the readers to be installed in their communities. Another company, Ring, which was acquired by Amazon last year, sells doorbell cameras for homes and businesses.

One Michigan man was arrested hours after he was caught on video posted on one the Ring “Neighbors” app, rummaging through the bed of a pickup parked in a driveway,  reports the Detroit Free Press

Livonia, Mi., detectives quickly recognized 60-year-old Jeffrey Couch when they saw the video posted by a user on the app in mid-August. Within a week, he pleaded no contest in court to two attempted larceny charges and was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

The growing proliferation of  surveillance technology now includes home security cameras in doorbells, on floodlights and porches and at back doors, and many law enforcement agencies are jumping on the latest tech bandwagon to spot possible crime trends, share safety information and request videos from app users in an effort to stave off and solve crimes,

“I truly believe this is the Neighborhood Watch of 2020,” said Livonia Police Capt. Ronald Taig, whose force was one of the first law enforcement agencies in Michigan — and is one of more than 400 across the country — to partner with Ring.

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