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Houston’s ALPRs Help Solve Crimes, but Not Everyone Is a Fan

Flock Safety, the company behind Houston’s array of automated license plate readers, says its technology is helping police curb crime, but privacy and civil rights advocates say the tech raises other concerns.

Flock Safety license plate reader
Flock Safety
(TNS) — A fast-growing tech company, Flock Safety, is touting its expanding Houston network of license plate cameras and their use in solving crimes — including one recent high-profile case in which an Alief ISD teacher was murdered.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union urges public and private entities to use caution in how automated license plate readers, or ALPRs, are implemented, stating the cameras can reveal highly sensitive information about people and their everyday movements.

With Flock Safety's ever-growing presence in greater Houston, here are some things to know about the cameras and how they're being used.


Flock Safety is a public safety operating system that uses license plate reading cameras to provide 2 4/7 monitoring for police departments, homes, businesses, and neighborhoods. The system was created to deter and help solve crimes such as vehicle thefts and burglaries.

The cameras are installed 8 to 10 feet high on street poles and can capture images of vehicle license plates. The vehicle data is transmitted to a system where police can use the information. The system also alerts police to stolen cars, or when a license plate being tracked by police enters a community.

The cameras are put in place not only by law enforcement, but also businesses, HOAs and neighborhoods, and other community organizations. Law enforcement agencies have access to a broader version of the system.

"The whole idea here is to get the data from our hands to law enforcement as fast as we can, so generally the recommendation is to let law enforcement be the managers and basically the overseers of that data," said Dale Anzalone, territory sales manager at Flock Safety.

Law enforcement agencies oversee the data collected by the cameras they own and may share access with other police departments across jurisdictions. Businesses and communities may also let law enforcement oversee their cameras.

One Flock camera costs $2,500 yearly, plus a $350 one-time installment fee. They aren't the only automated license plate readers on the market. Flock's competitors include Deep Sentinel, Citizen, and Vigilant Solutions, who all run similar camera systems.


Flock Safety moved into the Houston area four years ago when it rolled out its systems in the Katy, Memorial Villages and Jersey Village police departments.

Now, Flock has close to 3,000 cameras installed across greater Houston, including cameras used by the City of Houston. Pearland voted to purchase the cameras in February 2022 for $191,000.

While Flock representatives did not provide details which or how many entities may start using the system in the foreseeable future, the company confirmed it is continuing to expand across the area.


Larry Boggus, community relations officer with the Memorial Villages Police Department, said the agency was one of the first in the Houston area to use the Flock system. According to Boggus, the cameras have enabled officers to assemble lists of persons of interest within 30 minutes after a crime is committed.

The department oversees more than 50 Flock cameras, including the 33 it owns, which read over 400,000 plates in a month. The agency also has access to 1,331 cameras throughout Houston.

In 2022, the cameras helped recover 41 stolen vehicles and 29 stolen license plates, according to the department.

A report by ranked Memorial Villages as Texas' safest city in 2019, the Chronicle reported.

"Flock just came at the right moment," Boggus said. "You can't gate public streets, so how do you solve crimes better and maintain your 'safest cities' reputation? ...Not that we don't have problems; we don't have as much."


In the Houston area, the cameras helped officers file charges in the murder of Alief ISD teacher Wendy Duan, KHOU reported. Duan was shot and killed in Sugar Land on Jan. 9. Anzalone said information obtained from Flock cameras was provided to law enforcement, eventually found the person accused of killing her.


Savannah Kumar, attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said this type of surveillance technology raises privacy concerns. Kumar urges people to be cautious with the implementation or expansion of ALPR systems, and to consider how long the data is retained and where it's shared by law enforcement.

In April 2022, Houston passed an ordinance requiring some businesses to record footage that must be provided to law enforcement regardless of whether police have a warrant.

"Right around the time that ordinance went into effect, the Houston City Council also voted to approve a contract with Flock to take a photo of every car that passes the camera, collects the license plate information, run it through the database and store and share this information," Kumar said.

According to a KHOU report, in August of last year the Houston City Council approved a five-year contract of up to $6.4 million to lease 318 Flock Safety cameras.

Kumar said the ACLU believes a large network of surveillance cameras makes it possible "to tell where people are in the city, where they're going, who they're seeing such as which religious centers or health care clinics they're going to and when they're going to the places. And all that data collected together is a massive privacy violation for people in Houston."

The ACLU doesn't object to all ALPRs and acknowledges their usefulness in finding stolen vehicles, AMBER alerts and toll collections.

Kumar said that the ACLU will continue spreading awareness and encouraging people to stay informed, push back and ask questions to ensure their private information stays private.


The company said in an email that the Flock system can mitigate crime while protecting privacy.

"We agree with the ACLU on many things, including responsible treatment of the data collected by ALPR devices," the email said.

According to the company, customers own the data collected by their cameras and are the only ones who have access.

"Flock never shares, sells, or monetizes it. Every search for evidence within the Flock system is logged, requires a search reason, and is auditable. And after 30 days, if it is not being used by law enforcement as evidence in the investigation of a crime, it is permanently deleted."

Flock said it encourages transparency, adding that many cities using the cameras have implemented "robust ALPR policies" with input from community groups. The company also launched a new transparency portal in partnership with the Piedmont Police Department last year. The portal provides details about a department's collection and use of data, such as the type of information the cameras detect and which agencies have access. Other departments have since adopted the portal as well.

©2023 the Houston Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.