As Metro Council in Nashville defers once again on proliferating automated license plate readers under police administration, community security firm Flock Safety aims to install units one neighborhood at a time regardless of Metro approval.
The debate on whether or not to use ALPRs — a subject often linked to racial profiling — is especially nuanced and dates back to 2020 when Metro Councilmember Joy Styles introduced the subject for discussion. Numerous iterations were workshopped before it was finally withdrawn, which made way for Councilmember Dave Rosenberg’s alternate ordinance to appear before Metro Council only to be deferred for four meetings for the sake of community engagement.
ALPRs are essentially smart cameras relying on algorithmic artificial intelligence to recognize patterns — specifically license plate shapes, numbers and state issuers; vehicle makes; automobile models and colors; and the faces of drivers and passengers.
The debate shifted in the Atlanta-based security firm’s favor with the reactions to Styles’s version, heavily criticized for, among other things, the prospect of the aforementioned racial profiling. Facial recognition proved to be a major concern for community advocacy groups. In April, At-Large Councilmember Sharon Hurt said she feared this becoming another policing tool that could end up “disproportionately [impacting] people of color.”
It will not be seen until Nov. 2 whether or not this new, and now delayed, version of the legislation can assuage racial profiling concerns with the most significant contrast from its predecessors: an amended subsection disallowing any technologies capable of facial recognition.
Flock Safety’s product is the most widely discussed item on the market that complies with this requirement as it is not capable of facial recognition.
The long wait for Flock Safety got longer, but the company has never waited on city governments to put its product on the street. Rather, it focuses just as much on targeting individual neighborhoods and homeowners’ associations to find communities that are willing and able to fund the installation of even one individual unit.
In the last two years, automated license plate readers have been a significant discussion for not only the Metro Council but also of Greater Nashville-area governments in cities like Brentwood, Mount Juliet and Spring Hill. Flock Safety has had a large stake in each city’s deliberations.
Of the four cities, only Spring Hill — led by Mayor Jim Hagaman and aldermen — appears to have taken the bait so far, unanimously approving a pilot program Tuesday to set up two or three Flock Safety street cameras at yet-to-be determined locales throughout the city.
Though Metro seemed to reject the idea of ALPRs in April, one North Nashville neighborhood had set up its own Flock Safety unit about five months prior while the original bill was still being workshopped, amended and repeatedly discussed. Haynes Park resident Gina Coleman and her fellow board members in the Haynes Park Neighborhood Association organized a fundraiser via fish fries and other events to pool about $4,500 for two installations in their neighborhood.
In Brentwood, proposals before Mayor Rhea Little III and commissioners never materialized into Flock installation, though Brentwood approved ALPRs of another brand while having access permissions to Shelby County’s network of 109 Flock Safety installations via data exchange with not only them but also Franklin, Memphis, Atlanta and well over 50 other municipalities. When Flock representatives spoke at an informational meeting with Brentwood officials, they confirmed that at least one homeowners’ association in the city would install their technology soon.
In Mt. Juliet, Flock Safety was among a handful of ALPR companies outbid by Rekor Systems on a contract to provide cameras for Mt. Juliet Police Department’s Guardian Shield Program, which went into effect in early 2020.
The spread to the Greater Nashville metropolitan statistical area was a natural progression for Flock Safety after becoming dominant in its hometown. By 2019, about 100 neighborhoods, apartment complexes and private land owners in Metro Atlanta were already relying on Flock’s technology with contracts of their own independent of any law enforcement agency.