Do the ends justify the means? That ethical dilemma was the focus of Oak Park’s village board meeting Monday as village trustees discussed a resolution to approve a two-year agreement worth $112,500 with Flock Group Inc. to install 20 automatic license plate recognition cameras and the associated software in the village.
Proponents of the software believe it has the capability to reduce crime by giving police access to vehicular data that can be used to solve carjackings, shootings and other violent crimes. Critics believe it is an infringement of civil rights and privacy. The vote on the measure was tabled until the first week of April, but the conversation surrounding the efficacy and morality of this surveillance software will likely continue long after.
Flock manufactures license plate recognition motion-activated cameras that capture the vehicle, color, type, plate number and state, as well as special characteristics of automobiles including bumper stickers and roof racks. This information is extremely helpful to police in investigating criminal activity, according to Oak Park Police Chief LaDon Reynolds. The Flock website claims the software will reduce crime in communities by up to 70 percent.
“It does not identify individuals; it does not identify sex or race,” said Reynolds, who called the cameras an “investigative tool.”
“It basically alerts police to wanted vehicles based on the registration information.”
That information is then uploaded in a database and stored for 30 days. After that, the data is wiped from servers. The footage is owned by the village of Oak Park and cannot be sold by Flock. The system does not turn up personal information related to the captured vehicle, such as to whom the car is registered. It is also not used to enforce traffic laws.
Reynolds said in his presentation that Flock “takes human bias out of crime-solving by detecting objective data and detecting events that are objectively illegal,” such as stolen or carjacked vehicles.
Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla, who has a background working in the technology industry, took issue with this claim, saying, “Data in the hands of biased people will always be biased data.”
Another major concern for Walker-Peddakotla was the lack of a cyber security clause in the agreement, which she called a “big, big red flag.”
“Think about it – if you were a woman, and you have a domestic abuser that gets access to this information, your domestic abuser can actually know where the heck you are,” she said.
A whopping 54 public comments were made at the village board meeting. A large percentage of those in favor came from residents of southwest Oak Park, the area last November where the two cars were shooting at each other while speeding down Lexington Street near Harlem Avenue. Residents of the neighborhood have since been lobbying hard for greater police action and traffic calming measures in the area.
Those not in favor felt the 24/7 Flock surveillance was Orwellian and an invasion of privacy. Some wanted to wait to see what Oak Park’s contracted police consultant BerryDunn had to say about Flock. Many criticized the software company for employing tactics that could potentially be used to racially profile immigrants and Black and Brown people, telling the village board the agreement goes against its commitment to racial equity.
Flock’s potential to misread plates caused unease. Residents and trustees opposed to Flock cited a 2009 incident in San Francisco where a woman was reportedly arrested and held at gunpoint after her license plate was misconstrued by an automatic license plate reading camera. The lawsuit filed by the woman in 2014 against the city and county of San Francisco does not name the manufacturer of the license plate reader used in the incident.
“These cameras have a high error rate,” said Trustee Susan Buchanan.
Buchanan did not share what that error rate was. However, a representative from Flock told Wednesday Journal the system accurately captures 97 percent of vehicles that pass the cameras.
Trustee Chibuike Enyia told the board he believed the Oak Park police department already does a “really good job” solving crime without the aid of license plate recognition cameras, which he called “a drastic solution.”
“I do understand the need for tools for police to do their job, but I don’t think that this is the tool we need right now,” Enyia said.
Village President Vicki Scaman made the call to postpone the vote on the resolution until the first week of April, to allow the community more time to express concerns and to allow new Village Manager Kevin Jackson more time to get acquainted with the subject. The almost-four-hour meeting was the first attended by Jackson as village manager.
The principal ethical conundrum for Trustee Lucia Robinson was not about the cameras themselves nor potential racial equity issues, but the fiduciary drawbacks of delaying the vote. The negotiated $112,500 offer in the agreement expires March 25. By not agreeing to the contract by that date, the village may face potential financial repercussions. Wednesday Journal has reached out to Village Attorney Paul Stephanides for more information.
“I don’t see any benefit gained in delaying the vote,” Robinson said.
Likewise, Robinson did not believe further input from the community as a result of the delay would change the board’s ultimate verdict.
“I’m not sure an additional 20 public comments is really going to sway anyone’s decision,” she said.
The typically in sync board was divided over Scaman’s suggestion. The motion to table the decision was passed 4-3 with Walker-Peddakotla, Enyia, Buchanan and Scaman casting the affirmative votes. Robinson and Trustees Jim Taglia and Ravi Parakkat made up the opposition.