Council, police discuss automatic license plate readers at meeting

Flock Safety representative joins general conversation about cameras.

Members of the Mercer Island Police Department (MIPD) and city council engaged in a nearly hour-long discussion regarding stationary automatic license plate readers (ALPR) cameras at council’s regular hybrid meeting on Sept. 19.

Flock Safety community engagement manager Kristen MacLeod joined the general conversation and briefing that was situated near the start of the meeting. Flock has been selling cameras to law enforcement agencies and neighborhood associations since 2017 and currently lists about 40 Washington jurisdictions — including nearby Medina — as its clients.

MIPD Chief Ed Holmes said they are just beginning to learn about the cameras and no recommendations are being made regarding the system at this time.

The stationary cameras are utilized to help reduce crime and they snap still images of rear license plates of vehicles that enter and exit cities. Through this process, officers are alerted of stolen vehicles that have been detected and of missing, endangered or wanted persons. Data captured is subject to public records requests and to a destruction schedule; Flock recommends a 30-day retention policy of the images, but that time frame will ultimately be determined by the cities.

“The reason we’re bringing this to you tonight is we’ve had some pretty strong community interest and some of the councilmembers have reached out expressing interest and learning more about these systems,” said Holmes, adding that he understands the cameras cost about $3,000 apiece per year. During the discussion, it was noted that the Island could position seven cameras at its Interstate 90 off ramps.

City Manager Jessi Bon jumped into the conversation and noted that the city first needs to undertake policy work, including retention and access to the footage. Other bullet-point items presented at the meeting for the city and council to delve into were cost and funding options, timing and prioritization and sending out a biennial community wide survey should the council wish to consider implementation of the system.

“I think we all can acknowledge it’s important to get community response on this, get their take on it,” Holmes said.

When the issue of privacy concerns arose at the meeting, MacLeod noted that cities own the footage and Flock is unable to provide the still images to anyone unless they are forced to do so through a court process.

MacLeod said that Flock founder and CEO Garrett Langley, who noticed rising crime in his own neighborhood, aimed to create a company where the technology was accessible to communities, where there was transparency, safeguards for privacy and efficiency. She added that the still images captured are not tied to any personal identifying information.

When asked about the system’s efficiency, MacLeod said that user communities have noticed an impact when it comes to recovering stolen vehicles and locating missing persons in Amber and Silver alerts.