Cobb County police are crediting a license plate reader program and the due diligence of its officers to a sharp reduction in crime near Six Flags Over Georgia.
Flock Safety installed 13 license plate readers near the amusement park in March as part of a trial run around the Riverside Parkway corridor. Over the next six months, Cobb police reported a 60% reduction in overall crime in the police precinct that included the cameras.
Cobb County Deputy Police Chief Stuart VanHoozer said he was initially skeptical about the reduction. He asked the department’s statisticians to run the numbers again, but the figures came back the same. VanHoozer said the department is “cautiously optimistic,” that the reduction will stick, adding credit is due to the Flock system as well as the officers who serve the community.
The Six Flags area, located in Austell in south Cobb, falls into a police precinct that has the highest crime rates in the county, the deputy chief said. The area has a high level of property crime, including car break-ins, thefts and residential burglaries.
The solar-powered Flock cameras are installed on utility poles and scan vehicle license plates as cars pass them. Officers are notified when the system detects a license plate from a vehicle reported as stolen or if the plate itself has been stolen.
Cobb police say the system has allowed cops and investigators to “react in real time to crimes in progress,” and immediately arrest suspects, recover stolen cars and items and obtain evidence of other crimes committed in the area.
Over the past five years in the zone that includes Six Flags, Cobb police averaged 147 thefts from vehicles between March and August each year. In 2018 there was a slight dip with 138 car break-ins reported during that period.
According to figures provided by Flock and Cobb police, the same time period for this year saw 50 car break-ins, a 64% reduction. Robberies also dropped from 23 to 11 (a 52% reduction) residential burglaries from 34 to 27 (21% reduction), commercial burglaries from 27 to 10 (63% reduction), thefts from 160 to 150 (6% reduction) and vehicle thefts from 52 to 45 (13% reduction).
“I think the technology is great and these young people who put this together should be commended, but it doesn’t work without officers who are still willing to get out there and risk their lives,” VanHoozer said.
Property crimes in the area have been traced to other, more serious crimes, VanHoozer said. For example, many of the property crimes were committed by individuals hoping to get weapons. After those weapons were stolen, VanHoozer said officers patrolling those beats would get reports of armed robberies in the same areas.
“We knew they were dipping in both types of crime,” he said of perpetrators.
Cobb police also recently purchased more of the readers to be deployed in an area in West Cobb where the agency has also seen a spike in property crimes. County commissioners in October approved a contract with Flock to install 26 license plate readers at 13 county parks.
VanHoozer said the department will have to find the funds if it wants to enter into a formal agreement with Flock to begin leasing the cameras.
License plate readers and security cameras are growing in popularity with area police departments as a way to fight crime. Marietta police are using the Flock Safety technology, and DeKalb County police can now tap into Flock camera systems installed in neighborhoods. The city of Johns Creek also approved an agreement to allow its police department limited access to neighborhood and home cameras.
In Atlanta, the use of license plate readers as well as cameras have played a “vital role” in keeping that city safe. With the help of the Atlanta Police Foundation, the city has been able to add or integrate more than 10,600 public and private sector cameras around the city, said Atlanta police spokesman John Chafee.
“Access to these cameras multiplies the number of eyes we have on the street looking for criminal activity and assisting with situational awareness during large events and gatherings,” he said. “They allow us to identify criminal activity as it is occurring, prevent and deter criminal activity, and capture video evidence when a crime does occur to aid in criminal investigations and prosecutions.”
Atlanta was not able to cite similar numbers as Cobb to show a measurable decrease in crime as a result of the cameras.
When asked about privacy concerns, VanHoozer said the license plate readers only log the geographic coordinates, date and time, tag and the color of the vehicle when it its scanned. Police are only notified if the tag and/or vehicle is listed in the system as stolen. No identifying information on who owns the vehicle or tag is provided.
However, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia has raised questions about police and neighborhood use of the systems. The automatic license plate readers, said ACLU Legal Director Sean J. Young, have the “potential to track your every movement.” The “mass surveillance of innocent people” raises serious constitutional concerns, he added.
“Since the founding of our country, governments have used law enforcement as an excuse to invade our cherished privacy,” he said. “So we should be skeptical whenever the government wants to use a new tool that will threaten our privacy.”
One Cobb resident has been satisfied with his Cobb neighborhood’s investment in the Flock system. Victor Cooper, who lives off the East-West Connector in Smyrna, said he believes the readers “make people feel safer.”
His neighborhood, Fontaine at Cooper Lake, decided in February to install one license plate reader at the entrance of the community. Cooper, the HOA president, said there were discussions about the system’s cost effectiveness and privacy concerns, but many of the residents were on board with the system. Since the installation, there has been a reduction in package thefts from residents’ doorsteps.
“We felt the advantages outweigh any negatives to it,” he said.
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