Automated cameras help Wyoming police curb crime

Technology added in high-crime areas to identify vehicles used in illegal activity.
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The police department’s new safety cameras have proven to be effective in investigating vehicle-related crimes. Courtesy Flock Safety

The Wyoming Police Department added a new component to its safety measures — a type of automated license plate reading (ALPR) system called Flock Safety.

Capt. Eric Wiler called the cameras a “game-changer.”

Flock Safety, an Atlanta, Georgia-based public safety system, has created a motion-activated automatic camera that takes still images of passing cars to help police officers obtain evidence and alert them to the presence of vehicles that may be involved in crimes.

According to Flock Safety representative Holly Beilin, about 7 out of 10 crimes of all types are committed with the aid of a vehicle. Burglaries, kidnappings, theft, hit-and-run incidents, shootings and other violent crimes often are committed while involving personal transportation.

Flock Safety designed its cameras to photograph passing cars’ license plates and share that information with police officers to help them find or track vehicles that might be driven by violent offenders or contain evidence related to criminal activity.

The Flock Safety cameras were first installed in March, and so far have helped facilitate 23 arrests, including multiple felony and violent crime arrests, according to Wyoming police. They also have aided in the recovery of roughly 16 stolen vehicles, several of which have been Kias or Hyundais taken in the recent rash of thefts.

The cameras are stationary and are mounted in specific locations that the Wyoming Police Department have deemed to be at higher risk for crime. The cameras, which usually are on a pole and supported electronically by a solar panel, take still photos of passing vehicles. They do not record vehicle speed and are not triggered by drivers exceeding the speed limit. They also do not record a photo of the driver, use facial recognition or anything beyond a basic vehicle description and license number to create an objective report of vehicles.

Wiler said the cameras then compare the plate number and vehicle description to, for example, a list of stolen vehicles to check if the registered owner of the vehicle has a warrant out for an arrest, is a missing person or is wanted by the authorities for any reason. If the vehicle is a match to any on the list, officers on the job receive an alert.

For example, a stolen vehicle passing camera A is recorded as a white Subaru with license plate “xyz.” Camera A passes that information along, and as a Subaru with that license plate number has been reported missing, an officer nearby is alerted on the patrol car computer. The entire process, from vehicle passing to an officer receiving an alert, generally takes around 30 seconds.

After receiving that alert, officers can check if the vehicle still is listed as missing, and can then choose to pursue the lead.

Wiler specified that an officer cannot stop a vehicle they are notified of without first cross-referencing to ensure that the vehicle or plate number is still listed as missing or of interest. 

According to Flock Safety’s Beilin, the cameras can be specifically helpful in hit-and-run or drive-by shooting incidents, as victims often cannot obtain a license plate number and only are able to describe the make or color of the vehicle.

“Our cameras can actually categorize based on certain characteristics, like the color of the vehicle or the type of the vehicle,” she said. “We also allow for law enforcement to search by vehicles with no plates. So, it’s not just a paper plate, also, if there is no plate. A lot of times with stolen vehicles they get taken off immediately.”

Being able to search for vehicles with paper or missing plates is a unique capacity that not many automatic safety cameras have, she said.

The police department has 12 cameras that work in “teams” of two, one posted to either side of a roadway.

“The successes that we’re having,” Wiler said, “it’s really like having 12 more cops out there watching high-crime areas.”

The cameras are mounted approximately 10 feet above the road on a pole and are relatively small, meaning they are not likely to be vandalized. The Wyoming Police Department does not publicize its camera locations, keeping them discreet and inaccessible to help keep them safe.

“You could pretty much think of them as like a trail cam,” Wiler said, likening the photo stills the safety cameras take to the photography of wildlife through an undetectable camera.

In addition to helping recover stolen vehicles and finding getaway cars, the department also has successfully used the safety cameras to find missing persons. He gave an example of a recent call in which a family alerted the department that their family member, who suffers from dementia, had been missing for six hours. The family member was only supposed to be out briefly but hadn’t returned home. The concerned family gave the police department the license number of the vehicle being driven, which was added to the safety cameras’ list of vehicle alerts. Wiler said within less than two hours of being reported missing, the Flock cameras had found the vehicle and the person had been returned to their family.

Solar panels provide electricity to the cameras, which are mounted approximately 10 feet above the road. Courtesy Flock Safety

The cameras also have lightened the workload placed on officers in the wake of budget cuts. Wiler said having an extra set of eyes on the job in the form of Flock cameras have helped alleviate the stress officers are feeling and allows them to do their jobs more efficiently.

The new safety cameras also have been an asset in helping police officers maintain objectivity in their work. As the still images do not record drivers’ faces or car interiors, the cameras help create an entirely objective report of a vehicle.

Stolen vehicles are pinged by the cameras as stolen, without any additional information, removing the biases that can impact vehicle stops.

“Here’s a picture of a car, this car is stolen,” Wiler said of the camera images. “You’re not stopping it (the car) based on any demographics of the driver or passengers or anything else, it’s simply a factual thing. Here’s a picture of a car, it’s stolen.

“If we have an armed robbery and we know a plate number and that car passes the camera, we’re stopping it because this car was involved in armed robbery, not because of some other reason.”

Wiler said the new cameras have proven to be a success, and the department is open to adding more as the need arises.

“It’s great (help) for our community, with recovering stolen property for people, with protecting people from crimes. We’re able to identify some people who are committing some violent crimes and getting them off the street and that, in turn, is preventing future incidents, as well. It’s just been a really great tool.”

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