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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

145 N Street, N.E.
Washington, DC 20530

May 2020 | Volume 13 | Issue 5

Alarmed by several high dollar burglaries in their upscale Atlanta neighborhood, and worried about physical safety as well, homeowners met with officers from the Cobb County (Georgia) Police Department (CCPD) to discuss ways to catch the perpetrators and prevent future incidents.
According to CCPD Deputy Chief Stuart VanHoozer, everybody at these meetings agreed that high-resolution infrared cameras which could capture vehicle tags and descriptions—actionable evidence—would help, but the homeowners balked at the cost of installing the cameras, which would require trenching for electricity.

Maintaining Vigilance with Mobile and Fixed LPRs

Undeterred, the department explored other ways to improve safety and eventually established collaborative relationships that produced large reductions in crime.

The CCPD’s first use of License Plate Readers (LPR) cameras began four years after the rash of burglaries, when they purchased mobile LPRs to attach to patrol cars. Because of their connection to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, these cameras were effective in alerting patrol officers to the presence of offenders, leading to numerous arrests, including one in a homicide case.

Motivated by their success with mobile LPRs, the CCPD began to promote the use of stationery LPR to homeowner’s associations (HOA). But though these networked cameras were powerful crime-fighting tools, they were also expensive and beyond HOA budgets.

A Chance Meeting Led to a Partnership

The situation changed in 2018, when an HOA president told VanHoozer about an affordable LPR system from a new manufacturer: Flock Safety. A local start up, Flock was selling lower-cost consumer model cameras to Atlanta-area homeowners.

The cameras, which were operated by batteries and solar panels, required no hard-wired electricity, making them easy and inexpensive to install. And because they used an air card for internet connectivity, they didn’t require a client-furnished network.

VanHoozer quickly realized that these advantages would make them attractive to HOAs and continued to promote LPR use within the department and at community meetings.

Working with a Tech Start Up to Increase County Safety

At a meeting of regional HOAs attended by a Flock representative, VanHoozer learned that despite their other advantages, Flock’s cameras were limited to capturing images of vehicles and tag numbers and logging the images into a database that could be searched after a crime occurred.  

But he knew from experience with the CCPD’s LPRs that they could do more than that and offered to collaborate with Flock to design a more robust system. At a follow up meeting with Flock executives, he suggested that their LPRs be connected to NCIC’s database.

The company’s leaders agreed and soon implemented this change, enabling the enhanced cameras to alert patrol officers about the presence of stolen cars, burglars, terrorists, fugitives, and other offenders in real time, enabling immediate response. 

Getting Real-Time Actionable Leads

Another improvement Flock made was to enable homeowners and local businesses to share alerts and video footage with the CCPD, providing immediate, actionable leads to area patrol officers. In effect, these cameras would become a force multiplier for CCPD at no extra expense to the county.

But to convince HOAs of the LPRs’ value, Flock had to prove that the system could actually reduce crime. To do so, the CCPD and Flock partnered in a proof-of-concept program. They decided to test the system in a high crime neighborhood, but were unsure about whether to place the LPRs over a wide area, which would help in back-end investigation, or in a smaller area where dense coverage would be more helpful to officers on patrol there. Together they decided on the smaller area.

Surprising Results from a Proof of Concept

The CCPD immediately noted the high number of alerts sent by the LPRs. Though mobile LPRs produce many alerts, most are for traffic issues. But Flock LPRs only sent more serious alerts linked to NCIC matches, so frequency was expected to be low.

Surprisingly, multiple alerts were sent the first day, and over a six-month period, dispatch handled approximately 900 calls related to the cameras.

Over time, many arrests were made. After one year, the data collected showed dramatic reductions in crime: reductions of 45 percent in robberies, 45 percent in burglaries, and 62 percent in thefts from autos (compared to a three-year average). Though not all categories lowered this substantially, total crime dropped by 35 percent. 

It was clear that the program could be a success in other neighborhoods as well—and now there was hard data to demonstrate Flock Safety’s effectiveness in reducing crime. But there were remaining challenges to HOA acceptance: privacy concerns and funding.

Resolving Funding and Privacy Challenges

To address privacy concerns, the department worked with county commissioners, HOA leaders, and community groups to determine best practices, gathering input from residents to develop policies and procedures. Most importantly, they made sure that the public knew how the CCPD was using the data and what the CCPD was doing to protect privacy.

Cost was another matter. Paying for the cameras wasn’t a problem for HOAs and businesses in affluent areas. But high crime rates tend to plague lower socioeconomic areas where funding could be more of a challenge. 

Recognizing their value as investigative tools, the Atlanta Urban Area Security Initiative funded a significant part of the cost to provide fixed LPR coverage in those areas, with Cobb County paying for the rest. 

To date, the program has had a great impact on the safety of Cobb County. Officers are getting actionable, lead-creating evidence from the community, resulting in numerous arrests, the locations of missing persons, and the return of stolen property.

Collaboration and Partnerships Were Key to Success

Commenting on his department’s unusual collaboration with Flock Safety, VanHoozer says “We don’t promote any vendor. There were a lot of excellent fixed LPR systems available. But at the time, no others were produced for consumers at attractive entry-point pricing and with ease of installation. In addition, Flock was willing to work with us to develop a system that would not only meet the HOA’s needs, but enable us to increase safety throughout the area.”

“We saw setting up a network connected to HOA’s Flock Safety LPRs as a way to partner with our community in a joint effort to provide a higher level of security and enable faster police response, often, at no cost to the county,” said VanHoozer. “Community Policing means policing with the community. These LPRs enabled that, helping us work with our community members and businesses to solve, prevent, and prosecute crime.”

Written with contributions from Deputy Chief Stuart VanHoozer of the Cobb County Police Department.

Faye Elkins
Senior Technical Writer

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