OMAHA — A proposed deal that would allow the use of license plate cameras on Omaha streets could leave city council members with a tough decision weighing public safety concerns against civil liberties protections.
In a public hearing that lasted more than an hour on Tuesday, council members heard from supporters and opponents of an ordinance that would allow the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office to place license plate readers in the streets of the city.
Automatic license plate readers are cameras mounted on patrol cars or stationary objects along the road that take a photo of each license plate that passes.
Plate images, along with the time, date and location, are recorded and transmitted to a database.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office recently installed 15 such devices on county streets, but needs permission from the City of Omaha to install 10 more at the border of county and city jurisdictions. town.
Use of the cameras is part of a 12-month free trial offered to the sheriff’s office by Flock Safety, an Atlanta-based company that offers license plate technology. Earlier this year, the Kearney Police Department became the first law enforcement entity in Nebraska to offer the company the free trial offer.
The sheriff’s office accepted the lawsuit in part because of a recent spike in crime, said Will Niemack, captain of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.
“We believe the cameras will have a positive effect on catching criminals,” Niemack said.
The Flock devices use data from the National Crime Information Center database, which is a computerized index of criminal justice information, including information on criminal history, fugitives, stolen property and missing persons.
If a stolen vehicle passes one of the license plate readers, an alert is sent to the sheriff’s office.
Similar devices are currently in use by the Bellevue Police Department and in Lancaster and Seward counties.
In the past month, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office received 116 alerts from the National Crime Information Center, which means that 116 vehicles that passed the cameras were stolen vehicles, had stolen plates or were linked to a missing person, Niemack said.
The data collected and how it will be used were among multiple concerns raised by council members and a representative from the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska on Tuesday.
Spike Eickholt, on behalf of the ACLU of Nebraska, urged board members not to endorse the deal.
“What this program is is a systematic surveillance of the people of Omaha,” Eickholt said. “We encourage the city council not to approve this ordinance. Otherwise, we ask that you wait and see. It’s a trial period, wait to see how it works for them.
The concerns were echoed by Councilwoman Aimee Melton, who asked what safeguards were in place to ensure the data collected would not be sold to a third party or hacked.
“Public safety is my primary concern,” Melton said, “but I also have to think about people’s constitutional rights and freedoms and when we start to respect them — and that’s what it does.”
The data belongs to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and is stored in a cloud with security measures consistent with those used by the FBI, Niemack said.
State legislation passed with overwhelming support in 2018 sets limits on how law enforcement and other agencies can collect and share information collected by technology.
Under LB93, government agencies can use the readers to identify vehicles linked to ongoing criminal investigations, reported as stolen, or associated with a missing person. They may also be used to identify vehicles with outstanding parking or traffic violations and for other traffic enforcement purposes.
The law requires collected data to be purged within 180 days unless necessary for a criminal investigation or prosecution, but Niemack said the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office will automatically delete the data every 30 days. .
For data to be recorded beyond 30 days, it should be considered evidence in an ongoing investigation, he added.
Flock also provides a website that displays usage metrics by the Sheriff’s Office.
“This transparency within (the trial) is going to be an interesting test because not only are we looking for proactive and productive investigative measures,” Niemack said, “but we’re also looking for ways for the community to engage with this to that we can help deter crime.
If the deal is approved by the city council, the Omaha Police Department would not have access to the devices or the data they collect.
Council members are due to vote on the deal on Tuesday.
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