Douglas County Sheriff’s Office urging Omaha to install license-plate readers

City Council debated the matter, heard public comment Tuesday
Members debated whether to approve a request from the Douglas County Sheriff's Office to install license-plate reading tech in the city.
Published: Aug. 16, 2022 at 4:40 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - City Council on Tuesday debated whether to approve a request from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office to install license-plate reading technology in the city.

The proposed ordinance calls for installation of license-plate detecting equipment on light poles but notes that Omaha Police would not be provided access to the data collected with those devices.

The ordinance was in its second reading at Tuesday’s council meeting, which also conducted a public hearing on the matter. The matter goes before the council a third time on Tuesday, Aug. 23.

A spokesperson for ACLU of Nebraska, which is against the project, said the Flock Safety system amounts to mass data collection, saying that plate numbers and GPS locations of innocent people would be collected and stored in the cloud.

Councilwoman Aimee Melton said she agrees with the ACLU, and that she fears the readers go a step too far while chipping away at people’s freedoms.

But DCSO says the technology is a useful crime-fighting tool, noting that it had already uncovered an auto theft ring. Authorities have had 15 cameras in place in Douglas County for a short time as a pilot project, and were hoping to include another 10 in the Omaha-metro area, particularly as auto thefts continue to be a major problem in the area.

Capt. Will Niemack told the council that Flock approached the Sheriff’s Office to offer a trial demonstration — at no cost to the county — for a year. Authorities were interested in giving the tech a trial run because of the rise in crime they had seen this year and last year, he said, particularly violent crime and property crime.

The system is designed to do two things only: Capture a picture of a plate and a vehicle when a stolen car drives by the system, and send an alert to law enforcement. Proponents said the system doesn’t give authorities carte blanche, and cameras are not oriented to view anything but a traffic lane. It also doesn’t provide a live monitor of traffic, nor does it employ facial recognition technology.

Douglas County authorities said that within the past month, the 15 cameras in use have sent 116 alerts indicating a stolen plate, stolen car, fugitive, a missing person — but it doesn’t mean that all 116 alerts were valid.

But the ACLU argued that the cameras don’t make a distinction when looking into a vehicle and could record information of others while in search of information about a specific vehicle, collecting data on anyone passing through the intersection at that time.

Proponents said the data collected — which is GPS locational data and not live-feed recordings — is protected with the same level of end-to-end encryption that the FBI or CIA would use, and that the data — which would automatically delete within 30 days — is never sold and is owned solely by the Sheriff’s Office, not by Flock.

Opponents suggested that the city wait to see how the trial period goes in other locations before moving ahead with the installation of cameras here.

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