NORFOLK — The Norfolk Police Department has installed 172 license plate reading cameras throughout the city, new Chief of Police Mark Talbot told City Council during a Tuesday work session.
The cameras track the location and travel of vehicles by license plate number as well as by the make, model and color of a vehicle. The cameras can even catalog and track damage, like a broken tail light, or modifications, like custom hubcaps. They cost $490,000 and were purchased with American Rescue Plan Act funds.
How they were paid for is notable as state lawmakers spoke out against a decision earlier this month by the state Criminal Justice Services Board to approve the use of ARPA funds to purchase license plate readers. The move went against decisions from the Senate and House of Delegates to kill bills that would have expanded the use of license plate readers amid concerns that the technology magnifies mass surveillance and poses a danger to privacy.
During Tuesday’s council session, Councilman Tommy Smigiel wanted to know hypothetically how the cameras, manufactured by a company called Flock Safety, would track a stolen car.
“I call 911 and let them know my car was just stolen,” he posited. “How quickly does it get put into the Flock camera system, registered, so they can track the movement of my vehicle through Little Creek Road, Hampton Boulevard, throughout the city?”
“Very,” Talbot replied, saying police could track the car without even knowing its license plate number. “It would be difficult to drive anywhere of any distance without running into a camera.”
“Right,” Smigiel said. “I’ve seen them.” Later, he pulled up a picture on his phone of a newly-installed camera on Hampton Boulevard — a small black device, perched like a bird on top of a tall pole, under a canopy of solar panels.
The resemblance to a bird is not quite coincidental. Flock calls its license plate reading cameras “Falcons.” The company also makes “Raven” gunshot detectors and “Condor” video cameras.
License plate readers have been around for some time, but Flock expands on that technology by using machine learning to track more vehicle information and by creating a nationwide mass surveillance database out of all its customers’ cameras. Over 2,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies use Flock.
The cameras are already operational in Norfolk, according to City Manager Chip Filer.
But what privacy protections are in place are unclear. Asked to provide a copy of department policy regarding the cameras’ use and video retention, department spokesman Will Pickering said the department is currently developing one.
“We want to make sure that we’re using data in respect to privacy but also to help public safety,” Pickering said.
According to the Flock Safety website, footage is stored temporarily on local devices until it has been uploaded to an encrypted cloud, at which point it is stored for 30 days. The American Civil Liberties Union advocates for cities to adopt privacy policies that mandate deleting the information sooner than that. New Hampshire state law, for example, requires deletion of data within 3 minutes if a license plate scan does not trigger an alert.
Norfolk’s cameras — and the annual subscription to Flock’s software and databases — cost $2,500 each. Yearly recurring costs for the 172 cameras in Norfolk total $430,000.
Among localities using Flock cameras are Chesapeake, Suffolk, Hampton, Newport News, Isle of Wight and Franklin, Talbot said. Virginia Beach and Portsmouth are having them installed.
“(That) creates a nice curtain of technology that all of us can use to support each other,” Talbot said.
The Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority has also purchased 20 of the cameras.
The Flock cameras that record comings and goings across the city are just one component to Norfolk’s Real Time Crime Center that has been in the works and is slated for completion in the fall.
The center will occupy the eighth floor of City Hall and will compile data from existing city-owned cameras and security systems, as well as some privately-owned cameras that provide information to the police.
Officers will receive information from the center in the moment — information like vehicle descriptions, victim or suspect criminal histories, live feed of video and even how people involved in crimes know each other, or what the police call a “relationship nexus.”
“That information is immediately sent to the officers,” Pickering said, elaborating on how the data is used currently even as the crime center is under construction. “It’s going to the terminal inside of their vehicle and it’s alerting them to, let’s say, stolen vehicles that are being hit, or if there’s a vehicle of importance, something that’s related to a homicide.”
Norfolk police used crime data to determine the locations for the cameras, Talbot said.
The expansion of the camera system comes as police said both violent and property crime is down over last year. Fifteen homicides occurred in the city as of May 21, compared to 25 homicides in the same period last year. Total violent crimes, including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, are down by 7%, with 441 violent crimes reported so far this year. Total property crimes are down by 9%, with nearly 4,000 incidents reported so far this year.
“I think it’s up to us to be advocates for the people who are trapped there,” Talbot said, referring to what he called “gun violence hotspots” in the city. “Most people aren’t drug dealers, aren’t shooters. Most people are living there, wanting to live a good life. ...So it’s up to us to identify those neighborhoods, prioritize them, put an effective strategy in place and execute the strategy.”
Norfolk police declined to provide a list of specific locations for the cameras. Nevertheless, residents advocating on behalf of certain affected neighborhoods spoke out a Tuesday’s council meeting and objected to their placement.
“I disagree with putting cameras in any neighborhood due to the fact of people being entitled to some type of privacy,” said Tiara Lassiter, a Norfolk resident speaking on behalf of Calvert Square and Young Terrace — low-income neighborhoods challenged by crime. “Granted, some people may think that privacy comes along with income. I disagree.”
Residents of Young Terrace and Calvert Square worked with the group New Virginia Majority to petition city council and the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority for changes that they say will be more effective than increased surveillance. Instead of cameras, residents want blue light call towers that would allow people to call for emergency services on an as-needed basis.
“Don’t waste your money on cameras,” said Monét Johnson of New Virginia Majority. “Install call towers. Give people access to food. Take an active stake in removing poverty from the list of punishable offenses in the city of Norfolk, and do not fund or install these cameras.”