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Criminal catcher or systematic surveillance? Omaha council to consider cameras on city streets

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Bellevue is among the jurisdictions in Nebraska to deploy license plate cameras to track stolen vehicles or missing person reports. Cameras sit behind traffic lights at 15th Street and Cornhusker Road in Bellevue.

Emails obtained by The World-Herald through a records request offer a look at how structural issues within the historic building slotted for Omaha's new downtown library branch have delayed the project.

OMAHA — A proposed agreement that would allow the use of license plate cameras on Omaha streets could leave City Council members with a difficult decision weighing public safety concerns against the protection of civil liberties.

In a public hearing that lasted more than an hour 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 on city streets.

Automatic license plate readers are cameras mounted on patrol cars or stationary objects along the road that snap a photograph of every license plate that passes by.

Images of the plates, 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 streets in the county, but needs permission from the City of Omaha to install another 10 on the border of county and city jurisdictions.

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 the license plate technology. Earlier this year the Kearney Police Department became the first Nebraska law enforcement entity to take the company up on the free trial offer.

The Sheriff’s Office agreed to the trial in part because of a recent rise in crime, said Will Niemack, a captain with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.

“We do believe the cameras will have a positive effect in 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 criminal history information, fugitives, stolen property and missing persons.

If a stolen vehicle is driven past 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 National Crime Information Center alerts, meaning 116 vehicles that passed by the camera locations were stolen vehicles, had stolen plates or were tied to a missing person, Niemack said.

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The data gathered and how it will be used were among multiple concerns raised by council members and by a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska on Tuesday.

Spike Eickholt on behalf of the ACLU of Nebraska urged council members not to approve the agreement.

“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. Alternatively we would ask that you wait and see. It’s a trial period, wait and see how it works for them.”

Concerns were echoed by Councilwoman Aimee Melton, who asked what guarantees were in place to ensure the data gathered wouldn’t be sold to an outside party or hacked.

“Public safety is my number one concern,” Melton said, “but I also have to think about people’s constitutional rights and liberties and when we just start ticking away at them — and that’s what this does.”

The data is owned by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and is stored in a cloud with security measures in line 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 gather and share information collected by the 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 also can be used to identify vehicles with outstanding parking or traffic violations and for some other traffic enforcement purposes.

The law requires that the collected data be purged within 180 days, unless it is needed for a criminal investigation or prosecution, but Niemack said the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office would automatically delete data every 30 days.

For any data to be saved beyond the 30 days, it would have to be considered as evidence in an ongoing investigation, he added.

Flock also provides a website that shows metrics of usage by the Sheriff’s Office.

“That transparency within (the trial) is going to be an interesting test because not only are we looking for proactive, productive investigative measures,” Niemack said, “but we’re also looking for ways for the community to engage with that so that we can help deter crime.”

If the agreement is approved by City Council, the Omaha Police Department would not have access to the devices or the data they gather.

Council members are scheduled to vote on the agreement Tuesday.

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