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Flock Safety Gives Users Expanded Vehicle Location Abilities

The new features allow police to, among other things, upload a photo of a vehicle from a private camera and then search for that vehicle on the agency’s cameras. And it can find vehicles based on more than just a plate.

Flock Safety license plate reader
Flock Safety
Flock Safety, a fast-growing startup that helps law enforcement find vehicles from fixed cameras, has released a slew of new features meant to make it easier for users to locate vehicles of interest.

Overall, the moves push the company’s software in the direction of giving police the ability to search for vehicles using whatever cameras are at their disposal — a security camera at an ATM, a homeowner’s Ring doorbell, even a photo somebody took on their cellphone. The company’s new Advanced Search package — which costs between $2,500 and $5,000 a year, depending on how many of Flock Safety’s cameras the agency operates — includes a feature that allows users to upload a picture of a vehicle from any source and then perform a search to see if any of the company’s cameras have seen it.

It doesn’t just search for license plates, either. The company has designed its software to recognize vehicle features such as paint color, type of vehicle and distinguishing features such as roof racks.

Before Advanced Search, users could only search images that their cameras had caught, or otherwise manually plug in features of a vehicle to look for it. Now, they can use the premium package to look for a vehicle caught on privately owned cameras. Garrett Langley, the company’s CEO and co-founder, described on a webinar just such a situation at one of Flock Safety’s beta tester agencies in Texas recently.

“The agency received closed circuit television footage, just a side view of a car, literally it was just a side angle,” he said. “They uploaded that to visual search, immediately had it whittled down to the one car that had to be it, and made an arrest within minutes.”

For now, the feature only works with still images — not video. But Flock also recently completed a two-way integration with Axon for its new Fleet 3 dashboard-mounted cameras. Those are Axon’s first dashcams to come with automated license plate reading integrated directly into them. Through the integration, users will be able to send Flock Safety images to Axon’s video storage platform, and vice versa.

“Once that’s added, there’s now a single button while you’re searching your footage, that allows you to save directly to … it’s a one-click integration,” Langley said.

Advanced Search comes with two other features: Convoy analysis and multi-geo search. Convoy analysis allows users to enter a license plate number, and then search cameras to find vehicles that frequently travel with that vehicle. The idea is to help identify accomplices to crimes — for instance, when multiple people regularly steal vehicles, they might drive to a location in one car, and then the two vehicles might drive away together. By entering the license plate of the stolen vehicle, an officer might be able to find the car they drove to the theft site.

Multi-geo search gives users the ability to search for vehicles that have been in multiple specified locations recently. The idea is that if an officer knows or suspects that multiple incidents in different locations are connected, they can perform a search to see if any vehicles were spotted in the given locations and then use that information as a lead to find a suspect.

The object is to improve the quality of evidence that officers can gather quickly.

“Our goal is to allow you to build stronger cases with less evidence,” Langley said.

The expansion of such technology in the hands of law enforcement, although designed to combat crime, is coming under increasing criticism from the communities in which they are deployed. For example, community members and advocates in Chicago are pushing the city to reconsider its use of the gunshot detection system ShotSpotter after it sent officers to a location where they then shot and killed 13-year-old Adam Toledo in March. The reliability of gunshot alerts as evidence has also been heavily questioned when it is submitted it in court to back up prosecutions.

Flock Safety also relies on automatic processes to generate leads that will likely influence where police travel to and who they approach, albeit with more specificity than ShotSpotter. The company has taken steps to address some ethical concerns, including a default to automatically delete footage from its cameras after 30 days.

It has also released a free feature called the ALPR Transparency Portal, which gives residents the ability to view data on how much the police are using the systems without disseminating personal information such as license plate numbers. It also lets residents know the agency’s policies on issues such as which outside agencies it shares data with, prohibited uses of the data and the number of cameras on the system.

Flock Safety is working on other new products, including a new piece of hardware it intends to debut at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference beginning Sept. 11 in New Orleans.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to remove confusing wording about who is responsible for entering evidence in court cases.
Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.