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Richmond County, Ga., Solves Crime With License Plate Reader

The Richmond County Sheriff's Office in Georgia is employing a camera system from Altanta-based company Flock Safety to track down criminals. Those who use the system claim it's not a threat to privacy.

(TNS) — David Dunnagan was notified about an individual who exposed himself to a jogger one-night in the Summerville area. Dunnagan, who handles public safety and traffic issues for the Summerville Neighborhood Association, was notified the following morning about the same perpetrator exposing himself to a group of joggers.

The joggers got a description of the vehicle the individual was driving and three digits of his tag. That's all Dunnagan needed to find the tag and notify the Richmond County Sheriff's Office, who arrested the suspect for indecent exposure less than 24 hours after the initial incident.

Dunnagan credited the Flock Safety camera system the neighborhood installed earlier this year in helping make the arrest and keeping the neighborhood safe. Flock Safety, an Atlanta-based company, provides solar-powered cameras to neighborhoods and police departments that record license plate information for every vehicle that drives by.

"How Flock Safety works, I can receive a video from a residence or business of something that just happened. If the video shows me a partial description of the car, I can then filter our traffic cameras down to that time frame and I can get every tag, if that particular car passes by one of our traffic cameras," Dunnagan said.

"We took a possible sexual predator off the street within 24 hours, so my board, who I answer to, is ecstatic about it. Public indecency is one thing, but what's next?"

Garrett Langley, founder and CEO of Flock Safety, said they've been in the Augusta area since 2019, but only started working with the Richmond County Sheriff's Office in September.

"To me, what's so cool, when we talk to sheriffs and police departments across the country they all say the same thing, 'We need more evidence.' What the camera does effectively is track cars and read license plates," Langley said.

The data, which includes license plate, make, model, color, dents, racks or a total vehicle fingerprint, is stored for 30 days and only searchable by an administrator, like Dunnagan, or the police departments. Langley says the cameras allow police to spend less time looking for a potential suspect and pinpoint someone's location in a much quicker way.

"We go from potentially having to make 100 traffic stops to just the one suspect. No one knows the race, the sexual orientation, the religion of who was in that car because that is just a car," he said. "Every single action taken in the system is audited and stored in perpetuity, so if there ever was a concern of misuse, all of that search activity is available to the public."

The company, which launched in 2017, recently secured a $150 million Series D investment and has already expanded to more than 1,200 cities across the country. The company claims the cameras help police departments nationwide solve more than 185 crimes a day.

The Cobb County Police Department reported a 60% reduction in overall crime over six months after installing 13 Flock Safety license plate readers in the police precinct near Six Flags Over Georgia, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported.

Richmond County Chief Deputy Patrick Clayton said they were approached by Flock Safety about installing the cameras. He said the two cameras in Richmond County controlled by the sheriff's office have been effective at helping them solve crimes and identify suspects.

The Augusta Chronicle requested information on where the Flock Safety cameras are located in the county, but the sheriff's office denied the request citing that they "will not disclose the location of confidential surveillance systems being utilized for the purpose of criminal investigation."

Although Clayton wouldn't reveal their location, he said the cameras were placed in high crime areas.

"We tried to put it in different kind of choke points of areas that have high crime rates. Without telling you, we try to choose choke points that is going to give us the biggest bang for our buck," Clayton said. "We want to maximize its use and we also have the capability to move it, to make it mobile. Right now, we do have them in stationary locations."

Langley said he understands public concerns about privacy and claims the company puts a lot of value around freedom, privacy and liberty. However, he argues that his company only records publicly available information, such as license plates.

"We need to provide objective and actionable evidence. What makes us so powerful is that we don't know who is in the car, it's really none of our business, we just know this car was on this road, which is publicly available information," he said.

Langley said the system also doesn't allow police departments or anyone to simply search for random vehicles passing through the areas. He said a crime needs to be committed and a case number needs to be assigned before police departments can access the system and cameras.

"You were an officer and you wanted to go search for your ex-girlfriend's car, you are going to have to lie and put in a fake case number or put in a case number that is against that, and that search is auditable by your superiors and your internal investigation group," he said.

Clayton said the cameras are only placed in public areas, so they don't infringe on anybody's privacy.

"The good thing it's kind of automatic for everybody so there is no kind of, what people might perceive as, profiling issues. It runs every tag," Clayton said. "There is no expectation of privacy from the motoring public because it's mainly done around thoroughfares, sidewalks or roads."

Dunnagan said he is the only person in the Summerville neighborhood who can access the system and can only access the Summerville cameras. He knows people may have privacy concerns, but he thinks the safety the cameras provide outweigh those concerns.

"When I drive down the road, I know I'm displaying my tag to anyone. Every tag is being recorded at these camera sites. As of today, other than the sheriff's office and me, the administrator, we are the only ones that have access to our system," he said. "I certainly try not to abuse, and I'm working indirectly under the sheriff's office. I'm listening to their commands."

The system also allows people living in the neighborhood to register to a "Safe List" to opt out from having their footage captured, which allows police to separate residents from non-residents. All the data is stored in a cloud system.

Dunnagan didn't want to specify how many cameras or where they're placed in Summerville, but wants people who are thinking about committing crimes in the area to be aware that they are being watched.

He said the neighborhood association assumed all the cost of the cameras, which is $2,500 per year, per camera with a $250 installation fee. He hopes they can add more cameras in the future.

"We did assume all the costs for the equipment. We would love to share that cost with the sheriff's office because we would like more cameras, but I think that would be as their budget allows," he said.

Clayton said they are working with different neighborhoods and entities, like the Augusta Housing Authority, to increase the number of cameras around the county. However, the Flock Safety cameras are part of a bigger vision for the sheriff's office.

"Our budgets here are very limited. The vision that the sheriff has, eventually, is we'll have a command center," he said.

In addition to Flock Safety cameras, Clayton said the sheriff's office will have access to an enhanced downtown Augusta video camera system, which is part of SPLOST 8, traffic engineering cameras and drones. The hope is that they will all be accessed from a centralized command center.

"It just makes everyone stronger. It makes that neighborhood a little bit safer and it also gives us leads, that if they do have any problems, we can go to that camera," he said. "If they go in that neighborhood whether on foot, on car, or whatever, it's going to be able to be detected."

Dunnagan encouraged other neighborhoods in Augusta to join them and install Flock Safety cameras in their area.

"If you are looking for results, it's technology that is available to us today," he said.

©2021 The Augusta Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.