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License plate recognition cameras coming to Jackson

License plate recognition cameras coming to Jackson

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office is poised to deploy several cameras around the county with automatic license plate readers in an attempt to combat crime more efficiently. 

“It’s been a very beneficial system for us,” said Farmer. “It’s an excellent tool for law enforcement.” 

The Jackson County Sheriff’s office had Flock cameras before Sheriff Doug Farmer came into office in 2022. However, while the department had the cameras in its possession, they were not being used. Farmer is putting those cameras to use and is now asking the county commission to approve the purchase of two more.

Flock cameras are used mainly to identify vehicles in traffic — a license plate recognition platform used by law enforcement agencies. The cameras are deployed in communities or on roadways and can scan license plates as they pass by.

“Whether it be an Amber Alert, whether it be a senior, Silver Alert, a Blue Alert, as we had this weekend, we can program those LPRs to read for those plates that are coming through,” said Farmer. “Most of them [function in] one direction so we had to think of where we’re wanting it to pick up at.”

According to Farmer, some departments share access to these cameras across agencies. This means that the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department already has access to Flock cameras being used in other counties around North Carolina and beyond. Farmer plans on sharing access to the cameras in Jackson County so that other agencies in turn will share with Jackson.

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But the cameras can detect a lot more than just license plate numbers.

According to Farmer, the vehicle fingerprint search allows the department to program in cars, their color, bumper stickers, roof racks, and anything else that makes the car unique.

“One of the recent cases we had with a gentleman that we were searching for, that would have been beneficial to have those deployed because there were a lot of stickers that we could have placed in there that were on that vehicle that would have let us know where he was at and we could’ve tracked him to his location,” said Farmer. “And matter of fact that is how they tracked him to the location he was at when he was captured.” 

In addition to the fingerprint search, there is also a map-based interface available in the system.

“We don’t have that, and we probably wouldn’t utilize that,” Farmer said. “In bigger cities they would utilize that.” 

Officers can also program in plates and vehicle details and receive real time notification if there is a hit on any of the department’s cameras, or other shared cameras they have access to.

“Whatever officers you have assigned to those cameras, as soon as that tag hits or that vehicle hits it automatically goes out to those officers, they know where it’s at in real time,” said Famer. “So we can respond and pick up that vehicle or if it’s an alert or what not try and get that vehicle stopped or if it’s a senior alert or something like that we can try to intervene and try to get to that.”

Farmer plans to mount a couple of the cameras permanently and have others that are mobile.

North Carolina recently passed legislation that allows law enforcement to use the cameras on state right of way, where previously this was not possible. Farmer said he hopes to eventually be able to track entrances and exits to Jackson County and the Cashiers area especially.

“That would be beneficial because if you have a bank robbery, you have an assault or something, you have a homicide and you’re trying to find where the suspect went out of town or what direction they’re traveling, it’s very beneficial,” said Farmer.

While the location of the cameras will be confidential, the devices are visible.

Commissioner Mark Jones told the sheriff during his presentation on Jan. 2 that he would like to know which counties or municipalities have the Flock system, which ones Jackson County would be reciprocating with, and whether that created positive feedback.

“We’ve probably got 100-125 agencies that share their Flock cameras with us currently,” Farmer told Jones. “Maybe more than that right now.” 

The department will sign five-year contracts with Flock and pay the company on an annual basis. While Farmer did not have the complete quote in hand during his presentation to the commission on Jan. 2, the total contract is estimated to cost the county between $50,000 and $60,000.

Farmer made it clear that his department is not trying to spy on anyone, and that the cameras are not an invasion of privacy. However, the American Civil Liberties Union disagrees with the latter. In part because of the data sharing capabilities, as well as data retention and constant surveillance, the ACLU has said the Flock camera system is “contributing to the creation of a centralized mass surveillance system of Orwellian scope.”

Last year, it was estimated that Flock cameras are already in use across 2,000 towns and cities in at least 42 states. In October, a Wake County Judge blocked Flock Safety from installing more cameras until the court could hear additional arguments from both Flock, and the North Carolina Alarm Systems Licensing Board. The board brought the case to the court claiming that Flock has been operating without a license for several years. However, Flock Safety contends that they are not an alarm system and therefore should not be under the jurisdiction of the North Carolina Alarm Systems Licensing Board.

The Jackson County Commission did not vote on a budget ordinance to pay for the cameras at the Jan. 2 meeting but will likely do so in the coming weeks.

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