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Watch now: Will license plate-reading cameras solve Decatur's crime issues?

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DECATUR — Von Thomas’ house in Decatur’s Johns Hill neighborhood is as pretty as a picture and totally camera-ready.

But the unblinking eyes of the surveillance cameras about to be deployed in the streets around Thomas’ 1940s home aren’t interested in his nicely redone brick tuckpointing, refurbished windows or an immaculate yard, due to be adorned soon with exotic plantings for the summer.

The coming cameras, capable of reading license plates on cars whizzing by at speeds up to 100 mph, are focused on capturing evidence. It’s part of a private and city-funded anti-crime initiative that will soon seed Johns Hill and other neighborhoods with 60 of the devices that will keep watch 24/7, and record what they see so police can pull and analyze footage to aid investigations into anything from drive-by shootings to burglaries.

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Von Thomas poses for a photo at his home on East Wood Street in Decatur. With a burned out house across the street, Thomas would like to see the city be more proactive with the demolition of such structures to address crime in the neighborhood rather than the placement of cameras.

The cameras will be installed and maintained, at a first year start-up cost of $165,000 shared between the city and the philanthropist Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and then billed at $150,000 per year after that in a three-year lease deal on the city’s tab. The foundation is also busy partnering with the city in a more than $9 million project to overhaul the Johns Hill area with new streetscape and infrastructure improvements and, eventually, housing upgrades.

Thomas meanwhile has been busy “working my (expletive) off” to fund his own upgrades. He works two jobs to pay for it all (construction and running a food truck with his family under the business name “The Turkey Man”) and has lived in and been laboring to renovate his home since 2008.

Thomas says money for surveillance cameras would be better used right now to fix up some of the battered properties that surround him and blight the neighborhood, collectively bringing the tone of everything down. He points across the street to empty, battered houses — one of them burned out — and suggests why not start there? His idea is for the city or whoever to clear away the eyesore structures that are his immediate neighbors and create a peaceful little inner city park instead, with maybe a water feature, seating and plants that attract colorful visitors like butterflies.

Thomas said that would do much to create a haven for residents and improve the looks of the major East Wood Street thoroughfare he lives on, and give passersby a far better first impression of the neighborhood. Thomas believes it would make more sense to get improvements like that done first and then install cameras to keep an eye on everything once it’s all been fixed-up.

“Let’s fix it before we watch it,” he added, making it sound like a slogan for the future.

'The two things go hand-in-hand'

Decatur Police Chief Jim Getz begs to differ, however. He doesn't pretend to have detailed knowledge of the Buffett-City partnership to revitalize Johns Hill, but points out that the removal of eyesore buildings is already underway.

The chief argues that bringing in the cameras now to help safeguard the transformation of the residential area is sound policy. “So while you are working on the neighborhood, trying to clean it up, it kind of makes sense to put the cameras in now; the two things go hand-in-hand," he said.

Getz also points out that other residents in the Johns Hill area have made it clear they want the cameras on guard and ready to help protect them and their property. “They’ve said they wanted cameras because they knew the neighborhood was going to get cleaned up and they wanted to keep crime out of there,” added Getz.

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Von Thomas takes great pride in his home along East Wood Street in Decatur.

Similar technology has been used in larger cities, such as New York, Washington and Chicago, for years. Decatur officials have also discussed installing technology that uses microphones to detect gunfire. 

Whatever the final breakdown of Johns Hill families choosing to be for or against surveillance, the city of Decatur-Buffett Foundation camera deployment remains a done deal, and the cameras are on their way to undisclosed locations. It’s part of a hot new trend that is seeing private high-tech firms strike lucrative contracts to give law enforcement access to the latest in artificial intelligence software linked to surveillance systems.

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The installation and maintenance of Decatur’s cameras will be handled by Atlanta, Georgia-based firm Flock Safety. The company was launched in 2017 by Garrett Langley, a wunderkind tech wizard (he’s 33 but in his company website picture could pass for a college freshman) who felt crime’s cruel sting personally when his car was stolen in 2017.

After police told him they had no evidence or witness information and so no chance of catching the organized theft ring that had been targeting his entire neighborhood, Langley decided to do something about it. And he also heard the sound of opportunity breaking and entering.

The entrepreneur and electrical engineer, who’d already sold a previous tech company he developed for $200 million, once told an interviewer that he always asks the question “Is there an acute enough pain point that people will talk about it?” when deciding whether a problem-solving new tech venture will fly.

And crime, he concluded, is such an inflection point where customers will sit up and take notice, and part with their cash, if they believe you’ve come up with the magic techno bullet to safeguard them and their property for a reasonable price.

His solution for his own neighborhood, and the service his company now offers Decatur and the nation, is a sophisticated plate reading camera technology that can flag suspicious vehicles, stolen vehicles, and vehicles otherwise associated with crime and send the police real-time alerts and location mapping information.

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Booming business

Customer interest in Flock is booming. The Decatur contract is one of the latest successful sales in a rapidly expanding customer base that has seen Flock technology deployed in some 1,000 cities coast to coast. Clients range from police departments to homeowners’ associations looking to circle the residential wagons and thwart incoming predators.

And Flock’s business model is so appealing it recently pulled in some $47 million in investor dollars from savvy “Shark Tank” types looking for future healthy returns and sensing massive growth potential.

Flock (the name comes from the idea that we victims flock together in herd vigilance to hold off the wolves of crime that prowl all around us) claims the deployment of its system has led to crime reductions of more than 30% in some troubled neighborhoods in other cities.

The company’s ambitious corporate goal is “to eradicate non-violent crime," a lofty target which might raise a few eyebrows among seasoned cops up to their ears in case reports. The company makes no such claims about violent crime, something Flock’s founder has described as “typically acts of passion” that will “never go away as long as humans exist.”

But Decatur’s police chief, who helped convince the Decatur City Council to go with the Flock deal, is a firm believer Flock’s cameras can also take a bite out of crimes of violence, too.

“One Illinois police department had 10 cameras installed in June of 2020. The cameras were integral in solving two homicides and one armed robbery in the first six months,” Getz wrote in a joint report to the council signed by City Manager Scot Wrighton and city IT Director Jim Edwards.

“This local police department is currently adding 15 more cameras,” the joint report added.

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Von Thomas poses for a photo at his home on East Wood Street in Decatur.

But however effective it may be, injecting Flock’s all-seeing technology into the everyday life of targeted Decatur neighborhoods — and doing it all via a no-bid contract — has not been without controversy.

Aside from Thomas’ point about whether it's a best use of resources right now, wider issues remain on the vexed subject of privacy, and the fundamental right of Americans to be left alone. One reader's Facebook comment in the wake of the Herald & Review story on the council’s decision in March to OK the Flock deal noted that select city neighborhoods will stay camera free and unmonitored while others get watched and recorded.

“So only certain neighborhoods are allowed privacy while others are being targeted,” the reader said. “How about you have actual cops sit in those heavy crime areas instead …?”

Watching the detectives 

A Chicago-based public watchdog group, Lucy Parsons Labs, which analyzes the police use of surveillance technology, said the deployment of cameras watching and recording the plates of passing cars in Decatur should spark concern. “It allows for the collecting of granular details of where people live, where they shop and where they go to the mosque or church or whatever,” said LCP Executive Director Freddy Martinez.

“So the privacy implications are pretty massive.”

Martinez worries that the ever-sharpening focus of surveillance technology now available worldwide, from car plate-reading cameras to facial recognition, is weaving a monitoring web of information that will give authorities an instant electronic dossier on all of us, all of the time. He said the melding of vast data sets threatens to “supercharge” the encroaching threat on America’s cherished civil liberties.

Getz has previously stated he has no interest and no desire to watch what law abiding citizens do with their lives. But faced with a city recently in the grip of a rash of gun violence and other troubles, he was reaching out for proven tools that could help his officers protect and serve. He has pointed out that the cameras will be looking at public rights of way and not trying to peer into people’s backyards.

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This burned out, partially collapsed mess is what's left of a home right across the street from Von Thomas. He argues it would be better to spend money cleaning up such eyesores before investing in sophisticated license plate-reading cameras. 

“I need something that works, something that’s going to solve crime and something that is really easy for my guys to use,” he said at the Decatur City Council meeting that approved the Flock deal. “This is a one-stop shop; we don’t manage any of it, we don’t store any of the information that’s gained from it. All we do is use it, and that’s exactly what I wanted.”

More recently, speaking to the Herald & Review, Getz said invasion of privacy fears were overblown. “First off, the information (collected by the cameras) is only stored for 30 days and then it's purged from the system unless a vehicle is involved in a crime,” he said.

“We, the police, are not monitoring those cameras 24 hours a day and we’re not putting them on anybody’s house. But, when a crime is committed, we can go back and look and see if we can locate the vehicle or the person who is responsible for that crime. That is the only thing those cameras are going to be used for.”

City Manager Wrighton had said the city looked around for an anti-crime camera system that worked and Flock fit the bill and offered good value and a “unique sophistication” that made Decatur zoom in on it’s services rather than those of its rivals.

But, in another controversy linked to the arrival of the cameras, this narrow focus on Flock and awarding them a lease contract without a competitive bidding process didn’t much please local technology companies like Decatur’s Beck Tech, owned by Matthew Beck. He had told city council members that his firm could do what Flock does, and would have appreciated the chance to enter its own bid to provide the city with surveillance cameras.

“Don’t be scared going to bid. It just gives you a better price,” Beck assured the council and the police chief.

Herald & Review's mission is to connect the dots, tell the stories about our community

Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe, who had clearly been caught off-guard that Flock was getting the contract without facing competition, expressed frustration at the meeting and hasn’t changed her mind since. “It really would have been more fair to go out for bids, especially as we have a local company that is able to do similar work,” she told the Herald & Review.

“It was a very frustrating (city council) meeting for me with the way this process (of awarding the contract) went,” said Moore Wolfe. “Maybe this company (Flock) will do a better job than we ever anticipated, but the process for how we got here, I am still not very happy with that.”

Material witness 

The mayor, however, doesn’t share concerns about cameras posing a threat to citizens’ privacy and says she has trust and faith in the police that the information gathered will be used responsibly. And she said in a city grappling with serious crimes while detectives make appeals for witnesses and help that frequently get no response, technology offers a new avenue to bring criminals to justice.

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Von Thomas poses for a photo at his home on East Wood Street in Decatur. With a burned out house across the street, Thomas would like to see the city be more proactive with the demolition of such structures to address crime in the neighborhood rather than the placement of cameras.

“We’ve been begging people for months to come forward with information about crimes that are happening and to help police with tips,” she added. “We're not having as much luck as I would hope, and perhaps people are afraid to step up and help; I am assuming that is the major issue, that there is a fear factor. Well, a camera doesn’t have to be afraid of coming forward.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Flock does share in privacy concerns about the use of its camera technology. Langley, the company’s co-founder and CEO, reemphasized in an interview the point Getz made about data dumps every 30 days. He said officers also use codes and identifying criteria to log in and access photographed plate information and that makes it easier for regular audits to see who looked at the footage and when and why.

Langley says the built-in checks and balances in the camera system are carefully planned to encourage responsible use: “Guardrails and speed bumps we place inside of the product to help guide people towards making good decisions,” he added.

“We have our own privacy concerns and we turned those concerns into action.”

He also insists that Decatur police and law-abiding taxpayers are getting a very good deal. Langley said his company designed every bit of its technology and software from scratch and has created a superior product unmatched by the offerings of rivals. He also said it’s a lot cheaper too, and recalls that he was quoted a camera system cost of some $250,000 just for his Atlanta neighborhood when he first looked into the market in those pre-Flock days after his car was stolen.

Langley said going out and building a better, cheaper mouse trap was a classic case of the “American entrepreneurial story” and Decatur will be glad it joined Flock’s flock once those cameras are deployed.

“You’ll see a great example of the technology doing its job,” he added. “And that job is helping multiply the power and ability of the city’s hard-working law enforcement agency.”

As for Thomas, the Johns Hill resident with the pretty house, he said he still remains to be convinced cameras are the way to fix crime in his neighborhood. But he also returns to his key point of saying sure, try them — after you get the neighborhood renovated first.

“Cameras are not going to fix that,” he said, pointing to the caved-in and burned-out house that sits right across the street from his home. “And that's what we need to focus on right now, not cameras.”

Contact Tony Reid at (217) 421-7977. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyJReid


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