Three Rivers City Commissioners approved a $32,100 Rural Violent Crime Reduction Initiative (RVCRI) grant last week to install six Flock Security cameras in the city for a two-year period.
Flock Security, a company based in Georgia and founded in 2017, works in partnership with local law enforcement to provide vehicle recognition for investigative purposes.
Police Chief Scott Boling spoke to commissioners about why the police department applied for the RVCRI grant, claiming Three Rivers, per capita, has an extremely high crime rate. Mayor Tom Lowry addressed the claim, saying that even small changes in a city’s crime rate can skew the numbers when measuring per capita instead of a city’s crime rate alone.
“I’m going to say one more thing knowing that some people will misunderstand it,” Lowry said.
“(Chief Boling) said we have a high crime rate per capita but we also have to acknowledge that sometimes we only have one or two per year — for instance murders and violent crimes. So if you go from two to three (murders) in a year (that can affect the rate dramatically). People need to understand the numbers, some of our crimes are so infrequent it only takes one more, and it goes through the roof. It’s just arithmetic. I wish people would understand that, too.”
Boling said Flock security systems have shown over time to drastically reduce not only property crime but also violent crime. Three Rivers Police Department was one of 33 recipients of the grant in the nation, and the only one in Michigan.
Director of Community Affairs Laura Holland gave a presentation explaining how the security cameras work. “This is vehicle recognition technology,” she said, “and it takes a picture of the back of the car, and it puts that image though a machine-learn algorithm that allows officers to search key vehicle characteristics.” Holland said these identifying factors could be anything from the make and color of the vehicle, to the time stamp of its last visit to town. “All this information gives your officers a better picture of the vehicles associated with crime than just the license plate information,” she said. Holland also said Flock does not utilize facial recognition software, as their focus is only vehicles.
Holland told commissioners about three ways Flock would make Three Rivers a safer community. She identified the first way as how Flock would provide proactive, real time alerts to TRPD every time a stolen vehicle or a vehicle associated with a felony warrant, missing persons or Amber alert is in the city. The second benefit Holland spoke about was the role Flock would play in an investigation, saying the company provides 30 days worth of data for officers to use in order to identify a vehicle associated with a criminal investigation. Lastly, Holland said the security system could even deter crime itself, and said in many instances individuals are aware the cameras have been installed and will avoid the community entirely.
On the topic of how to ensure the cameras are being used both effectively and ethically, Holland said there are aspects to Flock which make it unique in the way it holds officers accountable. In a partnership with Flock, TRPD will own all of its images, data, and will be able to decide who has access and how to share that data.
According to Holland, Flock will never share or sell that information. She said another important factor is the 30-day data retention “which is a good balance of making sure you are protecting your citizens from long-term monitoring, but you also have the investigative information.” Holland also described a transparency portal which will communicate exactly how the technology gets used in Three Rivers. “This is something you can share with your residents when they ask questions about it. This updates on a daily basis and we provided this as a way to be transparent with your community about exactly what data is collected, how it’s used, and why.”
Third District Commissioner Chris Abel asked if the six units being installed would be moveable, citing a concern that citizens would be aware of each camera location. Holland said they can be relocated, but for a fee. She told Abel Flock sees communities add more devices over time as opposed to moving the current cameras. Chief Boling said the cameras will be installed at the six major avenues coming into the city because “if they are going out of the city then we aren’t going to be chasing them all throughout the county. We want to be alerted if they are coming into the city — especially if they are involved in violent crimes. We want to be aware if they’re here and be able to respond.”
Abel also had questions regarding whether the police department could save a limited number of days beyond the 30-day retention in the event of a major crime such as a bank robbery. Holland’s response was, “No, we have that 30 day standard and so on day 31 it deletes.” She added that that was important to distinguish from the investigative data the TRPD downloads, which is subject to their own retention policy. She told Abel that while Flock deletes data every 30 days, the police department will download data onto their own servers while an investigation is ongoing.
Flock charges an annual fee of $2,500 for their security devices, and charges $350 for installation. Holland told commissioners because of the RVCRI grant, the city is not currently paying for services and to imagine it as a testing period to see if it works for the community. “You think of it as $2,500 for just this device, but we’ve got customers in other areas coming onboard like Sturgis and Portage, and so you actually will get access to their cameras, as well, so the law enforcement in your area can work together,” she said.
At-Large Commissioner Lucas Allen asked Holland to elaborate on the negative aspects of Flock, saying he had only heard her speak about its many successes. She said Flock has worked diligently to mitigate many concerns, though there have been cases of misuse including an instance in which an individual was tracking his former wife. “The great thing about Flock is we found out immediately when it happened because of the audit report,” Holland said, “so they were able to imprison the individual who was stalking.” She noted the other challenges the security company has faced such as issues installing cameras in locations with limited access.
Commissioner Abel and Second District Commissioner Steven Haigh had concerns regarding potential damage incurred to the leased cameras. Holland said Flock will typically cover the first case of damage, especially if it is related to a natural cause such as a fallen tree due to high winds. “If there’s an external party we do have a fee associated with that, but we usually see communities able to file insurance claims against that because it’s something they purchased as a community,” she said. In response to a query from Haigh asking how damage-proof the cameras are Holland described the devices as “a giant concrete block with a six to 12 foot pole, solar panel and camera at the top.” She told commissioners she has seen cars damage the devices, but generally has not seen an opportunity to harm them otherwise.
Lowry said he is in support of installing the camera, and interested in seeing the outcome in crime reduction. “This is an experiment,” he said, “It’s free to us, essentially. I’m willing to try it, I’m just curious what will come of it.” Boling told Lowry he agreed with his sentiments, and after the two-year test period the city can choose to stop partnering with Flock if it is dissatisfied with the outcome.
Before voting to approve the grant funding, Boling described two significant and ongoing investigations that are demanding a considerable amount of the police department’s time. He said if TRPD had Flock camera systems in place it would be extremely helpful moving forward. He told commissioners there has already been one incident where TRPD was able to work with the Portage Police Department, utilizing their Flock system. This led to the recovery of a firearm used in Three Rivers about 20 minutes after the situation occurred.
The four present commissioners, Allen, Abel, Haigh, and Lowry, voted unanimously to approve the grant funding Tuesday evening. First District Commissioner Pat Dane, Fourth District Commissioner Carolyn McNary, and At-Large Commissioner Torrey Brown were absent.
Beca Welty is a staff writer and columnist for Watershed Voice.