Fort Worth police have installed a network of 63 solar-powered license plate-reading cameras in high-crime areas around the city, a system that has already led to hundreds of arrests for crimes such as carjacking and murder, police said.
The cameras record the license plates of every car that passes by and instantly runs them in a database of wanted criminals, then alerts police when there’s a hit.
"Technology like this, it's a force multiplier,” said Sgt. Dalton Webb who helps run the program. “It helps us keep those communities safer by being there."
The city pays an Atlanta company, Flock Safety, $2,000 a year for each camera, which includes maintenance and the wireless connection.
Since the system was installed less than three months ago, it has helped catch two murder suspects, more than 100 car thieves, and a violent robber just a few days ago.
"We had an individual that got carjacked at gunpoint and we put the license plate of his carjacked vehicle into the Flock hotlist,” Webb said. “Within 28 minutes we got a hit on the plate and we sent officers there and they got that person in custody and recovered the car."
The license plate readers are in addition to about 500 remote-controlled cameras already in place all over the city which police can use to track a vehicle in real-time.
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Officers watch the live feeds in a control room they call the "Real-time Crime Center."
"It's the combination of great technology with very hard detective work,” said Garrett Langley, who founded Flock Safety just three years ago and now has customers in more than 1,000 cities.
The system can also automatically track cars by make, model, color, and things like if they have damage, Langley said. It also records a video image of the vehicle.
Privacy experts are concerned such extensive camera networks and the massive digital records they produce could give the government too much information -- even about innocent citizens.
"I think people legitimately have a concern this is part of a slippery slope where we're slowly giving up bit by bit our privacy,” said Dallas trial attorney Quentin Brogdon. “We're giving up lots of privacy and lots of rights."
But Brogdon added those privacy rights must be balanced against public safety interests, and police and the camera company insist enough safeguards are in place to avoid any abuse.
The data is deleted after 30 days and officers need to input a reason they're researching a specific license plate which can be audited later. The information isn't used for things like repos or immigration checks, they said.
"We can't sell it. We can't re-use it. We can't market it,” Langley said. “It's simply there to solve crime."
Police welcomed the checks and balances.
"Nobody wants us to be China,” Webb said. “Nobody wants that. I don't want that. You don't want that. But at the same time, it's a good tool."
The company said police in Lewisville and Grand Prairie also use its cameras.
Police departments aren’t the only customers.
Homeowners' associations also can buy the system and share data with police.