Champaign has been using automated license plate readers (ALPR) in an effort to reduce gun violence — and its police department is looking to not only continue usage, but to expand the technology’s presence in the city.
The Champaign Police Department requested in a Nov. 14 study session that the city council enter into a new five-year contract with Flock Safety, the Atlanta-based company issuing the technology. Police also asked the council to approve the implementation of a public safety camera system that would provide four-way coverage at 18 major intersections.
The measures — the five-year renewal with Flock Safety and the public safety camera program — will amount to $233,500 in one-time costs and $241,890 in annual recurring costs.
At the end of the study session, the city council held an informal polling on the proposed measures. Councilmember Davion Williams voiced the lone opposition, citing concerns about the additional surveillance.
Police informed the city council of an additional 16 locations where reader coverage could be beneficial. If approved, the total number of reader units in the city would increase from 46 to 62.
The readers are cameras that capture dated and timed photos of license plates in their view from up to 75 feet away. The department said the readers are not preventative measures to crime and violence, but will aid in investigative purposes that could lead to deterrence.
“Automated License Plate Readers, or ALPRs for short, have been stellar in their use as an investigative tool and have aided Champaign Police in solving dozens of cases where a suitable resolution may not have otherwise been possible,” Champaign Deputy Chief Kevin Olmstead said on Nov. 1 in an email.
The proposed public safety cameras, which would be owned and operated by the department, would cover areas at a lower cost than the readers, Olmstead said.
License plate reader installation began on May 4, 2022, with the final placements occurring on Jan. 24 this year. The city positioned its 46 readers on main routes that police determined had seen a rise in violence over the previous five years.
Over 15 months, the readers have been tied to more than 100 “positive outcomes,” which a police report defined as instances that have resulted in “an arrest, recovered property, an investigative lead related to an ongoing investigation that would not have otherwise been available, or the final disposition or resolution of a call for service.”
The readers have assisted investigations in five homicide and five sexual assault cases, two kidnapping cases and four arson incidents, Olmstead said in November. He added the department has also used the readers to aid investigations in six aggravated or reckless discharge of a weapon cases, three unlawful use of weapon cases, three missing person or welfare check cases, four robbery investigations and 38 motor vehicle theft incidents.
Under the current two-year contract with Flock Safety, the city is paying $2,500 per reader. According to a report, total costs are “not to exceed $240,500.” The company will raise its price to $3,000 per unit unless the city enters into a new agreement by the end of the year.
“Two years ago, when we approved these, I remember that night,” Councilmember Matthew Gladney said in the Nov. 14 meeting. “I had a lot of angst. I had a lot of uncertainty. I ended up voting for these hoping they would make a difference, and it looks like they have.”
Captured images of vehicles are converted into data and entered into a system. The data is stored for a total of 30 days and deleted after unless it will serve as evidence in a criminal or civil action.
Olmstead said he conducts monthly audits of reader data requests to ensure officers are abiding by the department’s policy and procedures. The audit consists of 15 random checks of reader search entries, with Olmstead paying close attention to incident numbers and vehicle descriptions to see if the request is warranted. So far, there have been no instances of misuse, he said.
Olmstead said the police have not received citizen complaints regarding the readers.
“I really, really love the fact that you are doing these extensive audits, and I think that’s a really important part of showing our community… that we have robust policies and that we are using these in the right way,” Councilmember Kathy Shannon said in the Nov. 14 meeting.
Flock Safety also created a reader visibility portal that provides usage statistics, such as the total number of vehicles detected by the devices in the last 30 days.Flock-Safety-Champaign-IL-PD-Transparency-Portal-12.08.23
According to the portal, Champaign shares its reader data with 19 other law enforcement agencies, including the University of Illinois Police Department, the Rantoul Police Department, the Danville Police Department and the Illinois State Police. The complete list of agencies is available on the portal.
“We continue to monitor and evaluate the use of technologies and affirm that the ALPR program has served as a valuable investigative resource and improve[s] the community’s overall safety,” Olmstead said on Nov. 1 in an email.
“I still don’t love the fact that we have surveillance,” Mayor Deborah Frank Feinen said in the Nov. 14 meeting. “I still am firmly in the camp of I’m willing to put up with surveillance in order to have a safer community where individuals are not, you know, regularly being subjected to gunfire. [Police have] done a great job in dramatically reducing those incidents, and the technology is a piece of that.”
The council will vote on formal action regarding the technology in an upcoming meeting.