A truck drives west along Casino Road past a new speed camera set up near Horizon Elementary on Wednesday, May 8, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
A truck drives west along Casino Road past a new speed camera set up near Horizon Elementary on Wednesday, May 8, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A truck drives west along Casino Road past a new speed camera set up near Horizon Elementary on Wednesday, May 8, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald) A truck drives west along Casino Road past a new speed camera set up near Horizon Elementary on Wednesday, May 8, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Controversial license plate, park cameras coming to Everett

The Flock camera system has faced opposition from the ACLU. A two-year deal in Everett will cost up to $250,000 per year, paid for with grants.

EVERETT — More than 70 cameras will soon be watching Everett’s streets and some parks on behalf of the police department — the latest measure in the city’s recent public safety push.

On Wednesday, the City Council approved contracting with Flock Safety for devices that use artificial intelligence to analyze footage. About 74 license plate recognition cameras will go up across Everett, along with a total of three “pan-tilt-zoom” cameras in Jackson, Lions and Walter Hall parks.

The controversial system will retain the footage for 30 days. That data will be subject to public disclosure requests, according to the police department.

The two-year project will cost up to $250,000 per year. The police department plans to finance the plan through grants it has already applied for, from the Washington Auto Theft Prevention Authority and the federal Department of Justice.

When exactly Flock will install the cameras may depend on how fast the permitting process moves forward. In an email, company spokesperson Holly Beilin said Flock usually installs cameras within a few months of getting permission.

The cameras “should be installed in 6-8 weeks,” police spokesperson Natalie Given wrote in an email.

Everett has 60 days from the date cameras are installed to opt out of the agreement with Flock at no cost, according to the contract. At the council meeting Wednesday, Police Chief John DeRousse indicated the city would withdraw from the agreement if it doesn’t receive the grants. However, he said he was confident both grants would come through.

City Council member Liz Vogeli was the sole opposition on the council.

“I don’t believe that it makes us safer,” Vogeli said at the meeting, adding police will only be using the cameras after a crime has been committed.

DeRousse responded that police could use the technology to interrupt a cycle of domestic violence or, in some cases, stop a crime in progress.

“Almost every day, I see where a system like this could be beneficial to our community,” DeRousse told the council.

Council member Mary Fosse supported the project, suggesting the cameras will help officers monitor crime and could serve as an alternative to police pursuits.

The cameras could help address vandalism of the city’s public restrooms, she said.

“Everyone deserves human dignity,” Fosse said. “We want (people) to be able to use the restrooms, but there’s been issues time and time again.”

The council voted unanimously to waive public bidding requirements for the cameras, since Flock is the only supplier that can provide the technology.

Flock works “with over 50 law enforcement agencies in Washington state,” Beilin wrote in an email.

Flock has seen tremendous revenue growth in recent years. But it has also faced controversy around the country. In February, Forbes reported Flock installed cameras without permits in multiple states and has “run afoul of regulators in Texas and Washington over permitting issues.”

The Everett police spokesperson, Given, wrote in an email that “all the cameras leased by the Everett Police Department will go through a permitting process with Public Works.” Beilin said the company employs “nearly 50 people” dedicated to “permitting and public approvals.”

“Unfortunately, jurisdiction lines aren’t always as clear as you might imagine,” she wrote. “So every time we’ve been asked to check where our devices have been installed, or been explicitly told to remove a device because it might cross a jurisdictional line, we have done so.”

Forbes also reported Flock “has routinely handpicked and oversimplified data to support its crime cutting claims.”

Beilin wrote in an email Flock’s fast growth is “largely thanks to one thing: the technology works. Police Chiefs, detectives, patrol officers, elected officials, see every single day how Flock is helping clear cases that never before could have been solved.”

She cited a study Flock conducted “with the oversight of independent criminology research experts” showing “Flock technology increases case clearance rates.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has opposed the Atlanta-based company’s technology, citing concerns about the system storing footage for too long and sharing data with outside law enforcement agencies.

Tee Sannon, technology policy program director for the ACLU of Washington, said Flock is creating “a mass surveillance system” that collects an unprecedented amount of data about people through its camera network.

Sannon said a 30-day retention period is too long, calling for more state regulation on the issue. Once a license plate is run through the system and isn’t flagged, she said, the plate number should be deleted.

The data could be used to target vulnerable groups, Sannon said, like people traveling to Washington to access reproductive or gender-affirming health care. It could also be run against unreliable national watchlists, she said.

“I think there’s often the idea that, ‘Well, I have nothing to hide,’” she said. “The thing to keep in mind is the more this data is collected, it is adding to this broader surveillance system.”

DeRousse said he’d thought a lot about the potential “intrusion into our civil liberties. But I think a lot about the intrusion that some of our criminal elements in our community are having on the people that want to use these open spaces, but they’re afraid to. So I’m trying to find the right balance.”

In an email, Beilin wrote data-sharing is up to the Everett Police Department.

“Flock does not own the data collected by our devices; the customers own 100% of their data and choose who with and when they share it,” she wrote.

She continued: “Since we do not own the data, we can never sell or share it with any private third parties.”

Given noted the Flock system “allows for other agencies to access the Everett Police Department (license plate recognition) cameras database, with certain stipulations,” adding the agencies will have to agree their search “is related to a criminal investigation or life safety concern.”

“All use must be in compliance with Washington State law and the Everett Police Department’s policy,” she wrote. “The use will be tracked and audited, and each search will be stamped with a user ID.”

Arlington police also use Flock cameras, with 14 installed around the city. The department announced the program in October.

In an email, Arlington Police Chief Jonathan Ventura wrote recovery of stolen cars there increased dramatically as a result of Flock cameras. From July 1, 2022 to March 1, 2023, he wrote, Arlington police recovered about 52 stolen vehicles, compared to about 109 during the same period the following year.

“This remarkable increase in vehicle recovery can be attributed to the utilization of (automated license plate recognition) technology with built-in AI,” Ventura wrote, “demonstrating its effectiveness in addressing auto theft.”

One public commenter at Wednesday’s meeting, who said he spoke on behalf of the county chapter of the NAACP, raised concerns about the impact of the measure on communties of color and about where the cameras will be installed.

“I think talking about communities of color is really important in this conversation,” DeRousse said later in the meeting, not just because of fears of over-policing, but because “they’re also a community that gets victimized more.”

“We want to go in there and surgically weed out the criminal elements that are causing issues,” he said, as well as connect people who “are maybe susceptible to getting involved” in crime to groups “that can provide mentorship and development and other things that might be missing.”

Multiple members of the Delta Neighborhood Association expressed support for the project, including the group’s vice-chair, Sonja Bodge.

“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to keep our neighbors safe and a lot of people don’t realize how much time and effort goes into it,” Bodge said. “And if this can help the police help us defend ourselves from some of this it would be really appreciated.”

She added the group believes the Flock system strikes a “real good balance between safety and personal liberty.”

In an interview, Bodge noted Everett has changed since she moved here in 2018, noting Jackson Park has seen drive-by shootings, public drug use and other illegal activity.

“Everyone wants and deserves a safe, clean, drug-free place to play and enjoy the outdoors,” she said. “If we lived in a time like when I grew up, where you could go to a park and you’d never see anything like that, I’d say, ‘Wow, why would you be videotaping anything?’ But times have changed.”

Sophia Gates: 425-339-3035; sophia.gates@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @SophiaSGates.

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