HomeJobsFlock cameras generate ire, support on social media

Flock cameras generate ire, support on social media

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T-R PHOTO BY LANA BRADSTREAM — The installed Flock camera at Third Street and West Madison Street takes video of vehicles traveling through the intersection. The Marshalltown Police Department is utilizing the newly-installed cameras to help solve crimes and locate people with active warrants.

The installation of Flock cameras in 27 — soon to be 32 — locations in Marshalltown has divided social media users over the last week.

Flock cameras are used to read license plates and identify vehicles based on certain characteristics and then alert law enforcement. The cameras, which are linked to state and federal databases, provide real-time alerts for wanted people, Amber and Silver alerts, stolen vehicles or cars suspected of being used in a crime.

The installation of the cameras began during the last week of February. Marshalltown Police Chief Mike Tupper said roughly 25 of the cameras were functional as of Friday.

“There’s a handful of sites, less than five, that haven’t been installed yet,” he said.

Tupper said he was not sure when the remaining cameras would be installed, but knew it would be soon. How long an installation takes depends on the location, he said.

SUBMITTED PHOTO — The red pins indicate where new Flock cameras will be or have been installed within Marshalltown. The locations were chosen after being identified as main thoroughfares or points of entry or exit.

“Sometimes we’re working with people who own utility poles, like Alliant, and we have to go through a permitting process to use their poles,” Tupper said.

He added that these cameras are not new technology to Marshalltown. In 2017, three were placed — two on Anson at Center Street and Third Avenue and one in the parking lot behind the Center Street Station bar — by RACOM.

In various Facebook groups and on the MPD’s page, users voiced their opposition or support for the technology. Skeptics brought up Big Brother — a reference to the symbol of a totalitarian government using constant surveillance in George Orwell’s novel “1984.” Some commented that the cameras are a violation of privacy.

“It’s not,” Tupper said in response. “We’re talking about cameras installed in public spaces. We’re not gathering data about individuals. It’s not facial recognition technology. We’re taking photos of vehicles on public roads.”

The chief said people’s names cannot be entered in the system, and their movements can’t be tracked. It’s not how it works, he said.

Others said it was a waste of taxpayer money, and the funds should be used to pay for law enforcement officers. The Marshalltown City Council originally designated $150,000 for a camera program and, in October 2023, agreed to a two-year agreement with Flock Safety, a business based out of Atlanta, which is not to exceed $210,000. Tupper said the installation and maintenance of the cameras and the first year of operation will cost $110,000.

Flock Safety is also used by 13 other Iowa police departments — Altoona, Ankeny, Camanche, Carter Lake, Clinton, Clive, Council Bluffs, Glenwood, University of Iowa, Urbandale, Waukee, West Des Moines, plus Polk County Conservation.

Councilor Gary Thompson said he has to trust the system but felt the replacement of body cameras should’ve taken precedent over the Flock cameras.

“What I was told was that the cameras were only going to be used for license plate capture to track felons,” Thompson said. “However, I think this is a perfect example of putting a want before a need. This is not something we have to have, but we have to buy new body cameras for the officers. So once again, we put a want, the Flock cameras, before a need, the body cameras.”

There have also been concerns expressed about the cameras being one step closer to additional surveillance. Tupper said that is not something to be concerned about and stressed that the cameras are not monitored in real-time with someone sitting in a room and watching. The cameras are only used when an alert is sent, such as for a stolen car, or if there is an investigation, such as a shooting.

“(If) we’re looking for a silver vehicle, we can go in and search for silver vehicles and narrow the search down of our crime scene,” he said. “It’s not an active surveillance system.”

Tupper would also argue that no matter where a person goes, there is a camera. Numerous private homes and businesses use some form of surveillance.

“What we’re doing here is utilizing technology to allow the police department to be more effective and efficient with time,” he said.

Tupper added there is enough work for 50 MPD cops, which he has brought to the city council many times during his career.

“We don’t have the budget for 50 cops,” he said. “It’s expensive to hire and train police officers. We’re utilizing the technology to our advantage. These cameras will be a force multiplier for us.”

Users who support the cameras frequently mentioned the benefits to helping officers solve crimes, and keeping the neighborhoods safe. In fact, Tupper said on Thursday morning, the MPD was able to arrest someone with a warrant who drove by one of the cameras.

“I think where this technology is going to be really beneficial is when we have a missing person case, an Amber Alert,” he said. “Or a crime has occurred, where all we have is a red truck that went northbound on Third Avenue. These cameras are going to help us identify suspect vehicles and solve crimes.”

In addition, Tupper said two more warrant arrests were made in the short time frame the new cameras have been operational. Thanks to the cameras, officers were also able to solve a hit and run.

“The only people who need to be concerned are the people who are committing crimes,” he said. “We can’t track individuals unless there’s a warrant for your arrest and we get an alert.”

Tupper said a committee looked at the community and determined the most beneficial locations for the cameras, which are on highly traveled roads and intersections and exit and entry points.

“If a crime occurs, it is likely the suspect vehicle will drive down that street,” he said. “Criminals are very mobile. We see people coming into our community and committing crime, and they’re driving cars.”

Tupper said the cameras do not enforce traffic laws or issue tickets. The video recordings are deleted after 30 days and are MPD property. No other agency will have access to the information without the MPD’s permission. He said there is also no plan to add additional cameras.

The ultimate goal is to make the town safer, but Tupper was not surprised by the opposing social media comments.

“Generally when people are supportive or happy about something, they don’t get on social media,” he said. “When they are angry about something, we see a lot of those comments working in government.”

——

Contact Lana Bradstream

at 641-753-6611 ext. 210 or

lbradstream@timesrepublican.com.


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