Ontario police recently arrested a Bellevue stabbing suspect in the parking lot of Sam’s Club.

Mansfield police stopped a suspected stolen car from Upper Sandusky and arrested two suspects, also recovering suspected stolen property.

A Richland County Sheriff’s Deputy located and arrested a Shelby man sought for felonious assault.

All three recent successful law enforcement moments are being attributed to successful automated license plate reader cameras.

It’s a new strategy local law enforcement leaders said is a blessing in these days when many departments are under-staffed.

Crime never takes a holiday. Growing numbers of law enforcement agencies are looking for higher-tech solutions aimed at allowing police and deputies to work smarter, not harder.

LPR technology has been around for many years. But it has become increasingly popular among law enforcement agencies in recent years due to advances in the technology and decreasing costs.

It’s particularly useful for police departments because it can help them to quickly identify stolen vehicles, vehicles associated with criminal activity and vehicles with outstanding arrest warrants.

Mansfield police Chief Keith Porch, whose department now has two dozen active Flock Safety cameras mounted in the city, praised the system, which he said has been “extremely successful” in recovering stolen vehicles.

The city, which uses grant dollars to fully fund the LPR system, began a year ago by testing eight cameras before expanding the program recently.

“I have got 24 sets of eyes on the streets that don’t take vacations, don’t take days and don’t take sick leave,” the chief said.

“These cameras are of the utmost importance to our work, especially when we suffer from vacant positions.”

Improving the department’s technology is a goal Porch has pursued since taking over as chief four years ago. In his nearly 30 years of law enforcement, the chief has seen the difference it can make.

Aggressively seeking grant funding to pay for tools, Porch has added body-worn cameras for his officers and also employs ShotSpotter gunfire detection systems over about nine percent of the 31-square mile city.

Porch and Richland County Sheriff’s Maj. Joe Masi both call LPR technology a “force multiplier,” giving their departments watchful eyes in locations their officers and deputies cannot always be.

Joe Masi

“The Flock cameras are used as an additional valuable tool for law enforcement to locate vehicles that are associated with criminal activity,” Masi said.

“By locating the vehicle soon after a crime is committed, it protects our citizens from being an additional victim from the same offender,” he said.

The sheriff’s office, which has four of its 16 cameras in use, is tasked with protecting 500 square miles of Richland County.

“It takes a long time to get from one part of the county to another,” Masi said. “From Plymouth to Butler can take you 45 minutes. Whereby you may only have one deputy assigned to an area to locate a vehicle, accessing the Flock camera system is like having three or four additional deputies in that area to help locate a vehicle.

“The cameras help protect the county by alerting law enforcement of vehicles associated with a crime in our neighborhoods and rural areas,” Masi said.

A Flock camera helped RCSO eventually locate a Shiloh homicide suspect in late December. Masi said cameras “picked up the vehicle leaving the area” and that Ontario police alerted on it, also.

“That gave us the general direction of travel and the vehicle was later located in Wyandot County,” he said.

Flock Safety

Flock also notifies the department and deputies on patrol of potential vehicles in specific areas.

“While the deputy may not be in the area many times when the alert goes off, it gives the deputy a description of the vehicle when entering the area of where the alert was so the deputy can look for the vehicle.

“The notification could be a stolen vehicle with a description the deputy can look for while handling a call for service, serving a civil paper or just patrolling.

“This allows for multi-tasking when the deputy is busy,” Masi said.

RCSO Lt. James Berry said he was alerted to a stolen vehicle from Holmes County that was in the area of Acker Drive and U.S. 42.

“I was not in the area, but later when I was in that area, I decided to take a different route to my next civil paper service,” Berry said. “Taking that slightly different path to pass the area that I knew the truck was in earlier led me to find it.”

Berry said without the Flock alert, he would have had no reason to keep an eye out for the stolen truck.

“It was just down the road from the Flock camera, stopped in a parking lot. I ran the plate and it matched the stolen vehicle. The case resulted in a foot pursuit with the suspect and another male from out of town, who also had warrants, being arrested,” Berry said.

Among the three departments, including around 20 in Ontario, there are more than 52 LPRs in use.

There are limitations. Porch and Masi both said the technology cannot replace officers and deputies.

“You need personnel to respond. I could have 800 cameras and the entire city covered by ShotSpotter, but you have got to have enough officers to respond,” Porch said.

“Unless those cameras can jump down off poles and arrest people, simply having them does me no good,” the chief said.

In the case of the Shelby man being arrested, the deputy used the Flock system to help locate him. But it still required a foot chase and physical confrontation between the suspect and multiple deputies.

The success of the technology in law enforcement has largely been anecdotal, such as the aforementioned arrests in Mansfield, Ontario and Richland County.

None of the local departments have deployed the cameras long enough to obtain empirical statistical data that shows their usage has reduced crime.

An internet search by Richland Source couldn’t locate case studies that prove crime rates have dropped in locales where LPRs are widely used.

There are also privacy concerns about LPRs raised by groups like the American Civil Liberties Unions, defense attorneys and legal scholars.

In 2016, attorney Michael Fisher, then with the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, wrote a piece for the Cleveland State Law Review titled, “Ohio is Jonesing for Automatic License Plate Readers: Why This May Violate Your Fourth Amendment Rights and What The Ohio Legislature Should Do About It.”

Fisher study

Fisher said his piece “addresses the need for Ohio legislation in order to balance the interests of law enforcement in using license plate data to apprehend criminals with citizens’ Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.”

His recommendations included:

— Ohio should look to the other legislation of other states as a guide regarding its own legislation on automatic license plate recognition system regulation. Ohio’s legislation on automatic license plate recognition systems should require agencies to report statistical analysis of license plate scan data in a fashion similar to Arkansas.

— “non-hit license plate scan data” should be deleted every three weeks unless it is part of an ongoing investigation, in which case it may be retained until the conclusion of the criminal proceedings.

— agencies utilizing this technology be prohibited from sharing or selling the data. This prevents other states or even Ohio agencies from circumventing the statute by sharing data with larger databases and then obtaining access to those databases.

Local agencies have adopted “transparency policies” regarding their usage of Flock cameras. The MPD has created a page on its website the public can use as a portal to look at statistics and other data on how the department is using the technology.

Porch and Masi also said their departments verify Flock alerts through their Law Enforcement Automated Data System (LEADS) before taking action.

“Anything we get a Flock hit on, we double check and verify through LEADS,” Porch said. “If someone reports a car stolen and it’s recovered three hours later, it may be removed from LEADS before it’s removed from Flock.”

In addition to general law enforcement, LPR technology can be useful in locating children identified in AMBER alerts or in missing person cases, including elderly residents who may have driven off and become lost.

In Ontario, Chief Tommy Hill said Flock cameras were installed late in 2022, using $50,000 from the department’s equipment fund to lease the equipment for a year.

The cameras are posted at various intersections and close to a few parks, Hill said.

Ontario police Lt. Tony Grimwood, who described the arrest at Sam’s Club, said they are making a difference.

“It’s been a very instrumental tool for us. On any given day, we have three officers working. These cameras add more eyes,” he said, offering a reminder the cameras do not monitor speed.

“These cameras are not there for any purpose other than crime detection and crime prevention,” he said.

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