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Fort Worth, Texas, Increasing Number of Surveillance Cameras

There are currently 217 license plate cameras watching Fort Worth streets, and 20 more are set to be deployed soon, said Sgt. Jason Spencer, a public information officer with the police department.

Aerial view of Fort Worth.
(TNS) — Last July, a license plate-reading camera in Española, New Mexico, misread the 2 on Jaclynn Gonzales’ plate for a 7, incorrectly flagging her car as stolen while she was driving with her 12-year-old sister. Gonzales was 21 at the time.

The officer who pulled them over, however, did not double check for the machine error before handcuffing the sisters and putting them in the back of his patrol vehicle.

The experience was terrifying, according to Sheri Raphaelson, an attorney who is representing them and another Española resident in a pair of lawsuits against that city.

“It was traumatic for all of them,” she said in a phone interview. Española is a high-crime area, but her clients had worked hard to stay out of trouble. “The kids had done everything right. They were in school doing well, no criminal record, and still. Being handcuffed and held at gunpoint by the police is really unfortunate.”

The camera that misread Gonzales’ plate was manufactured and operated by Atlanta-based Flock Safety, with which the Fort Worth Police Department has also contracted to deploy its automatic license plate recognition cameras and run part of its newly revamped Community Camera Program.

The Española cases were not isolated incidents. Flock Safety was sued in November by an Ohio man named Michael Smith, who claims that he was wrongfully detained after his license plate was put on a “hot list” that incorrectly identified him as a human trafficking suspect.

In August 2020, police in Aurora, Colorado, detained a mother, her 6-year-old daughter and three other minors after a license plate reader mistook the plate on her SUV for that of a stolen motorcycle from another state.

And in October 2022, a police officer in Kechi, Kansas, was arrested after using the Wichita Police Department’s Flock Safety license plate reader database to stalk his estranged wife, prompting concerns about the technology.

“It can be really useful technology to the police,” Raphaelson said. “But they need to realize they’re getting information from a machine and not from a person, and the machine can make mistakes.”

Can Fort Worth trust license plate cameras?

There are currently 217 license plate cameras watching Fort Worth streets, and 20 more are set to be deployed soon, according to Sgt. Jason Spencer, a public information officer with the police department.

The ACLU warned against using surveillance products like Flock Safety’s, citing the company’s refusal to allow the independent technology evaluation and research group IPVM to test its latest technology, as the company’s major competitors have done.

Based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, IPVM bills itself as the “world’s leading authority on physical security,” and its work has been cited in several major media outlets as an authoritative investigator of claims made by companies using artificial intelligence in surveillance technology. In order to maintain independence, the trade publication does not accept advertising, sponsorships or consulting partnerships from manufacturers.

Third-party testing is important because it provides police departments and the public with the assurance that the technology works as stated, according to IPVM’s head of operations, Donald Maye.

“If our team can get into Flock Safety’s interface, see what they’re doing, see how the technology works, we can provide feedback to the public, to stakeholders, that helps them better understand what the system can and can’t do,” Maye said in a phone interview.

It’s about ensuring transparency in policing, he said.

“That way when limitations exist, it’s not something that the public or the taxpayer or the police departments that are buying these systems are unaware of, they can go in with a better set of information that isn’t controlled by the company that’s selling the technology,” Maye said.

IPVM was able to test earlier versions of Flock Safety’s license plate reading technology and found that it was inaccurate around 10% of the time. The site tried to get the software license to test the company’s latest cameras, but Flock Safety refused, initially claiming it was due to product shortages, Maye said. When IPVM found Flock Safety cameras on eBay, the company refused to sell it the software license, claiming that the equipment was stolen.

Flock Safety spokesperson Holly Beilin said that the company refused IPVM access to its software because of its nature as a machine learning technology that is constantly updating itself with data pulled from real-world events on the street.

“They’re testing things in a Philadelphia indoor lab. Our cameras aren’t even deployed indoors,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s literally just not accurate to put one of our cameras in a kind of a sterile indoor lab environment and expect that you’re going to get the same kind of results.”

Maye called the statement “absurd” and incorrect.

“We’ve tested all of their main competitors. We tested in a real world environment on a street with cars passing by,” he said. “We don’t test the system indoors, we test it on vehicles that are driving by. This fundamentally shows how Flock doesn’t understand why independent testing is important.”

Flock Safety’s cameras have contributed to reductions in violent crime in places like the Las Vegas Trail neighborhood, Beilin said.

“Even anecdotally — like finding Amber Alerts, finding kidnapped children, finding missing persons, solving homicides — all these things have been done in Texas and in Fort Worth directly with the help of this technology,” she said.

Community leaders like Paige Charbonnet, executive director of the Las Vegas Trail Revitalization Project, and Fort Worth council member Michael Crain echoed that praise for the technology and its effect on public safety in the area.

“People change their behavior once they know they’re being watched,” said Crain in a phone interview. The cameras are part of what he called “a comprehensive policing module” that fills in gaps where police officers can’t always be watching.

“They obviously can’t be everywhere all the time,” he said. “The technology can and allows us to maybe zero in, when needed, in a very efficient and quick manner.”

When asked about issues of Flock Safety’s applications in other cities and its refusal to allow its tech to be tested, he said, “Bring me some examples from Fort Worth that are like that, and I’m happy to figure out and address what the issue is.”

Fort Worth police are likely better trained in the use of the technology than in other cities, he said. Crain gave anecdotes of license plate-reading technology aiding in the arrests of suspects in shootings and lost children in his district.

He also pointed to doorbell camera footage that contributed to the safe return of an 8-year-old girl kidnapped in Fort Worth in June 2019. Flock Safety’s technology was not used in that case.

Anecdotes can often shroud broader privacy implications of this kind of technology, according to Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Any success has to be celebrated, but you have to be careful making policy by anecdote,” he said in a phone interview. “Beyond the success story that boosters of the technology will point to, you have to ask, well, for every success, how many failures are there?”

How does the Community Camera Program work?

Since 2016, Fort Worth residents have been able to register their home and business security cameras with the police department’s Neighborhood Camera Program to be consulted in the event of a crime in their area.

In January, that program was rebranded as the Community Camera Program and expanded to include new ways to participate, one of which includes giving the police access to live feeds of security cameras at businesses.

So far only nine cameras at local businesses have been registered to stream their live feeds into the city’s Real Time Crime Center, according to Spencer, the police department’s public information officer.

Over 2,250 Fort Worth residents had registered nearly 8,200 home or business cameras with the police department as of March 9, according to a registry of the program obtained through a public information request. The addresses of the registrants were redacted due to privacy concerns, though their names were not.

The Community Camera Program “helps responding officers gain real time context before arriving on the scene so they can more safely and successfully respond to incidents” and “gives detectives and investigators the tools they need to solve crimes,” according to the program’s website.

But private companies giving law enforcement access to live security camera feeds has broad implications for privacy and governmental power, said Stanley, of the ACLU.

“It’s one thing to have a camera that records if something dramatic goes down, but it’s a whole other thing to have live feeds all a watchable from a central location where law enforcement can, as the number of cameras gets more dense, gains a bird’s eye view of everything that’s happening across a town or city,” Stanley said. “That’s just too much power for the government to have.”

There are four ways to register a home or business camera, according to the program’s website.

Registrants can provide the quantity and views of the cameras on their property so that law enforcement can request access in the event of an incident, as under the original Neighborhood Camera Program. This option does not give the police direct access to a resident’s camera or security system.

Business owners can choose to stream the live feeds of cameras on their commercial properties directly to the department’s Real Time Crime Center. Spencer confirmed that this option is not available to private residences.

Other options include allowing the police department to view live and historical footage, with registrants choosing whether to allow that footage to be downloaded.

Beilin, of Flock Safety, assured the Star-Telegram that none of the company’s technologies employ facial recognition software and that Flock Safety does not own the data collected by the cameras.

“It’s good that they say they’re not using face recognition,” said Stanley. “But at the end of the day, any video that’s collected, you can always run face recognition on it later.”

The police department does not run facial recognition on the live feeds shared with the department, but it does use the technology on recorded footage, Spencer said.

“Our department has a quite strict policy on the use of facial recognition technology, which stipulates it can only be used to identify a specific suspect who is the subject of a specific criminal investigation, and requires special approval,” he said. “So it is possible, under those circumstances, that we would extract an image of a suspect to run through that technology. But it’s not scanning faces in real time like it scans license plates.”

Stanley described the situation as a new frontier in public safety and advised caution and transparency.

“These capabilities are things that human beings in the entire history of the world have never seen before,” he said. “They are brand new, they are very powerful, and we need to think very carefully about what they’re doing to our communities.”

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