Neighborhoods want better safety, but license plate readers controversial

Dayton police say cameras help solve crimes; some residents worry about privacy, increased police interaction.

The Dayton Police Department has grant funding to deploy automated license plate readers along roadways across the city, but officials say neighborhoods must want them and must develop safety plans showing they are needed.

“We want your input — we want to know if this is something you want in your neighborhood,” Dayton police officer Dan Mamula said this week at one of the community meetings in west and northwest Dayton to discuss neighborhood safety.

But some community members say they aren’t convinced the technology is worthwhile and they fear the devices could do more harm than good.

They raised concerns about privacy, cost and their effectiveness and potential impact on the community, like increased interactions between police and residents.

“I want to know the pros and cons, and I want to be able to evaluate as a citizen whether this is the most cost-effective strategy,” said Amanda Arrington, a local resident.

Each neighborhood has a unique set of public safety needs, and residents can partner with the city to develop safety plans specifically tailored to combat the most pressing crime and address quality-of-life issues in their areas, police and city officials said.

The Dayton Police Department has been awarded two separate federal grants that combined are worth about $260,000. They can be spent over the next couple of years to address general crime problems and issues in areas hard-hit by the opioid crisis, officials said.

Lt. Randy Beane with the Dayton Police Department said automated license plate readers are helpful crime-fighting tools that are already used by multiple local jurisdictions.

Last year, the Dayton Police Department temporarily installed and used 29 Flock Safety automated license plate readers in the Twin Towers and Oregon District neighborhoods.

A camera on Xenia Avenue helped solve a homicide case after a witness provided a rough description of the suspects’ vehicle, Beane said. The camera captured the license plate of a vehicle matching the description, which ultimately led to the arrest of two people on murder charges, he said.

The pilot program lasted for 90 days and came at no cost to the city.

Walnut Hills and Twin Towers saw notable declines in most crime categories during the pilot program, compared to the same periods in the two previous years, police said.

However, the pilot program took place early in the pandemic, when many people were ordered to stay home, which likely had an impact on crime activities and trends.

Police said the Flock cameras cost $2,500 per camera per year to use, and it is a subscription service with no capital costs.

Cameras are mounted on poles and buildings and snap photographs of passing vehicles and read license plates, which means officers later can search for specific types of cars and trucks and characteristics like make, model and color, Beane said.

The readers alert police to stolen vehicles and vehicles whose owners have felony warrants, officials said.

Dayton police cruisers also are equipped with cameras that have the ability to automatically read license plates.

Police say plate readers can be a crime deterrent since criminals may avoid neighborhoods where they know their vehicles could be caught on camera.

But some residents are leery of automated plate readers.

Arrington, who attended one of the community meetings this week, said she needs to see more evidence that the devices actually reduce crime and are worth the money.

She said she has serious concerns about other police surveillance technologies, like the ShotSpotter gunshot detection system used in northwest Dayton. She said that program was a mistake and she worries this one could be too.

Terri Sims, who lives in the Residence Park area, said she thinks her neighborhood will develop a safety plan, but she needs to do more research on license plate readers before deciding whether to support their use.

“How will something like that help our neighborhood,” asked Sims, who attended a community meeting on Monday. “It doesn’t make any sense to get something that’s not needed.”

The city and police department deserve credit for meeting with community members to discuss license plate readers, but their presentations seem one-sided and do not explain potential issues with the technology, said Kathleen Kersh, a senior attorney and project director with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality.

Many community members are worried about how the data the readers gather is stored and who else has access to it, said Kersh, who serves as legal counsel for the Coalition on Public Protection, a group of community members who are concerned about police oversight and surveillance tools.

There need to be policies firmly in place that prevent people’s information from being misused, she said, including protections guaranteeing that police cannot share the data with federal immigration enforcement agencies.

Community members also are worried about increased contacts with police and unnecessary interactions, Kersh said, adding that these devices could result in police pulling over drivers who did nothing wrong because their vehicles were flagged.

Many people share cars, and vehicles linked to a wanted felony suspect can be driven by someone else, she said.

Kersh said the police department should share all of the data and information it has — the good and the bad — so residents have all the facts they need to make an informed decision.

“I don’t think the police have done a good job to explain how the risks are outweighed by the benefits,” she said, adding she hasn’t heard a good explanation of how the devices actually help police solve some types of crime.

Police officials said the Flock readers are motion activated and capture the backside of vehicles and do not record the faces of drivers and passengers. They say the data is only kept for 30 days.

Officials said the police department owns the data and will share it with other law enforcement agencies — but not immigration enforcement authorities.

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