Akron Police Department Discusses New Technologies to Find Missing Persons
Last September, the Akron Police Department began installing Flock Safety Automated License Plate Reader cameras across the city. The cameras, which capture still images, are used to find missing persons, suspects, and as an investigative tool. (Photo courtesy of Flock Safety).
Legal news reporter
Published: March 31, 2023
The family of a missing 73-year-old woman with possible dementia files a complaint with the local police station. Officers enter the information into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database.
The woman had attended a dog show in Macungie, Pennsylvania but never made it back to Illinois.
She ends up driving into Akron and passes one of the police department’s recently installed Flock Safety Automated License Plate Reader cameras. Because the cameras are designed to relay information to the NCIC, an alert will be sent to police who will stop the vehicle less than two miles after it passed the camera.
Officers ask if the woman is okay and she explains that she is disoriented. The police quickly determine that she is the missing person, call her family and take her to a safe place until her brother arrives.
The real-life incident, which took place last October, is one of the many success stories Akron Police have attributed to the flock surveillance cameras now deployed in various areas of the city.
Akron Deputy Police Chief Michael J. Caprez said the cameras help the department use its officers and staff as efficiently as possible.
“With budgets tight and municipalities struggling to hire new officers, our department looked at ways to keep the public safe with fewer officers,” Caprez said. “These cameras and the use of other technologies are proving to be a good option.”
As Flock Safety spokeswoman Holly Beilin explains, the cameras are not recording video.
“They are activated by motion, so when a car drives by, the number plate is read and a still picture is taken.
“The software in the camera compares the image of the license plates to various state and national crime databases and alerts nearby police if the vehicle is linked to a missing person or a perpetrator with a pending warrant,” Beilin said.
“Police receive an alert on their cell phones, laptops or their MDTs (Mobile Data Terminals) in their squad cars.”
“Some people were interested in knowing whether or not foot traffic would trigger a picture to be taken,” Caprez said.
Over 120 Ohio law enforcement agencies have installed the cameras, and they are also being used in numerous out-of-state communities.
Each camera is leased for $2,500 per year, including necessary maintenance.
“We work with approximately 2,000 law enforcement agencies across the country to solve hundreds of crimes every day,” Beilin said. “We anticipate more law enforcement agencies will adopt this technology as its effectiveness becomes clear.”
In Akron, the installation of the first camera was completed on September 2, 2022. Since then, more than 100 have been installed, with the rest expected to be installed by the end of April.
The total upfront cost was $362,500 with a recurring annual cost of $312,500.
The cameras were strategically placed in parts of the city where most violent crime occurs.
“We used crime mapping and data analysis to determine where they would be most effective,” Caprez said. “One thing we do know is that around 70% of crimes involve the use of a motor vehicle.
“Once we determined where the technology would have the greatest impact, we placed the cameras at the entry and exit points.”
While police are not releasing details about the specific location of the cameras, Caprez said the department is seeing a variety of positives related to their use.
In fact, just days after the missing woman was discovered, the cameras played a key role in the arrest of two teenagers wanted in connection with an armed carjacking in Barberton, south of Akron.
The suspects drove the vehicle to Akron and accidentally passed one of the cameras, which set off an alarm. Akron police caught up with the people but refused to stop. After a chase, they crashed near Kent State University and were arrested.
In addition to assisting law enforcement in locating missing persons and making arrests, Caprez says the cameras are proving to be an investigative tool, particularly with regard to catalytic converter thefts.
“Catalytic converter theft is a huge national problem and we hope to gather information on repeat offenders who sell them at junkyards,” he said. “If we can identify the individuals involved in these types of crimes, we may be able to determine if they are involved in a large-scale criminal enterprise.”
Caprez said officers were confident the cameras would also help reduce the number of fatal clashes between police and suspects.
“As the cameras are deployed in communities across the country, vehicles associated with a specific suspect will be flagged by the National Crime Information Center,” he said. “So if there was a murder in Akron and this car goes out of our area and goes to, for example, Atlanta, Georgia, where they also have cameras, the police will get an alert that there may be a person wanted for murder in their area .
“Police can then take extra precautions when approaching the vehicle, which hopefully can avoid a deadly violent encounter,” Caprez said. “This information can help protect officers, citizens and the suspect.”
As juries and citizens demand more objective evidence, Caprez said the photos captured by these cameras will likely play a key role in law enforcement’s ability to provide tangible evidence and context for those deciding guilt or innocence.
“The cameras not only show the license plate, but also the date, time and direction the vehicle is going,” Caprez said. “Police can use the information to determine how long it took to get from one camera to another.”
While Akron police officers are optimistic about the potential value of these cameras, the department plans to evaluate their effectiveness after a full year of use.
“Based on the results, we will decide whether to keep the number, cut back, or add more cameras in specific locations,” Caprez said.
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