Other voices:  They’ll be watching you

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 10, 2022

Every move you make

And every vow you break

Every smile you fake

Every claim you stake

I’ll be watching you

The old ’80s hit song, by the Police, no less, says it well.

The city of Greensboro has placed 10 solar-powered cameras at some high-crime areas to keep closer tabs on lawbreakers.

And already, those eyes in the sky apparently have been another hit for police — this time for the real ones, who wear badges.

As the News & Record’s Kenwyn Caranna recently reported, footage from the cameras, which cost the city $27,500, is paying off in both leads and arrests.

For instance, Greensboro officers used information from the cameras to identify a vehicle used in a spate of convenience store robberies, resulting in two arrests.

“They’ve been extremely successful in identifying vehicles,” Greensboro police spokesman Ron Glenn said of the cameras to the News & Record. “(They) allow us to capture traffic that is moving in and out of that area.”

The cameras have been placed along the rights of way of city streets, including Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Spring Garden Street, East Market Street and West Gate City Boulevard. On March 1, the City Council approved installing five more, along English Street and East Gate City Boulevard. An additional camera also will be placed on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Each camera can capture the license plate number of a car traveling at up to 80 miles an hour.

Of course, cameras have been used as law enforcement tools around here before. The city’s short-lived deployment of cameras to identify and fine red-light runners received mixed reviews from local motorists. Then there’s the question of Big Brotherism and what critics see as a creeping lack of privacy.

However, police say the newest cameras, which are leased from an Atlanta-based company, Flock Safety, are not used for blanket surveillance. They are specialized devices called automated license plate reading cameras, or ALPRs.

And they are designed expressly to shoot the rears of passing vehicles, not human beings. The cameras capture the make, model, color, license plate and state that issued the plate on each vehicle, as well as details such as roof racks and bumper stickers. They also provide audio recordings of such evidence as gun shots, screeching tires and breaking glass, the company’s website says.

The company that provide the rental cameras also cross-references its data with the National Crime Information Center to match license plate numbers with outstanding warrants, missing persons cases and stolen vehicles. In one case, this enabled police to trace and arrest a driver with outstanding warrants. In turn, the driver provided leads on two accomplices who were arrested as well.

Three arrests in a shooting case also resulted from camera footage that identified a vehicle linked to the crime.

The early returns for another police department in North Carolina also have been promising.

Within one day of installing ALPRs, Garner police told WRAL, footage from the cameras enabled them to recover two stolen cars. They also used ALPR footage to identify a suspect in a park break-in and obtain warrants for his arrest.

For shorthanded police, the technology extends the reach of law enforcement even where no flesh-and-blood officers are on the scene. What’s more, someone might think twice about committing a crime in an area where the cameras are known to be deployed.

As for privacy concerns, a Flock official told the News & Record that the cameras “have no facial recognition capabilities.” She also said the footage recorded is deleted every 30 days. And third parties have no access to it.

The investment certainly seems reasonable. Data from each camera costs a $2,500-a-year subscription.

But, as with any new technology, there can be unanticipated problems and unintended consequences.

Remember how police officers’ body-worn cameras were supposed to mend community-police relations, encourage both the public and the police to behave better and take police transparency to new heights? While the cameras arguably have increased accountability and in a number of cases cleared police of alleged misconduct, accessibility to the footage is still overly restrictive. And even when footage is made public, it can be inconclusive — or different people can draw different conclusions.

Similarly, as promising as ALPRs appear at first blush, there could be glitches and abuses that no one foresaw.

So, both Greensboro police and the City Council need to be mindful of that. This means keeping a close eye on the cameras, even as they are keeping an eye on us.


— Greensboro News and Record