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Big Brother or crime fighter? Elbert County says 'no' to license plate readers

Big Brother

By Abhishek Published 2 months ago 3 min read
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Big Brother or crime fighter? Elbert County says 'no' to license plate readers
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

In a clash between personal freedoms and technology-driven public safety, the guys controlling Elbert County's purse strings won.

In May — to the dismay of the Elbert County Sheriff's Office — its own panel of county commissioners became what is likely the first governmental entity in Colorado to challenge the reach of cutting-edge surveillance technology avowed by law enforcement as a powerful crimefighting tool.

In December, the Elbert County Commissioners voted, 3-0, against renewing the contract for the region’s nine Flock Safety brand license plate readers because constant surveillance of passing vehicles is too much "Big Brother" for their comfort.

This is a place where people ought to be able to live freely and enjoy their properties and their lifestyle without being concerned about who’s watching them,” Commissioner Chair Chris Richardson said of constituents in this traditionally conservative county.

It was Richardson who gave the license plate readers (LPRs) a green light a year ago. At the time, he said he was under the impression that he had authorized police dashboard cameras.

But this version of LPR’s, operated by a private Atlanta company called Flock Safety, is actually a high-speed camera on 24/7 watch atop poles on handpicked county roads and busy intersections. Two of these contraptions are placed on nondescript poles at each entrance of a loop, which winds around Elbert county’s biggest attraction — a shopping center anchored by a Walmart.

A few residents interviewed by The Denver Gazette were not aware that the cameras existed and, thus, did not know they were being tracked.

“We have a right to know about them, but I'd like to keep them," said Elbert County resident Robin Hauger, who was eating a McDonald's lunch, parked right across from the loop entrance. She had never noticed the contraption placed across the street, although she had driven past it dozens of times.

In fact, it took months after the cameras were erected in Elbert County before concerned constituents brought the LPRs to the county commissioners’ attention. That’s when Richardson and the rest of the panel started looking into the good versus the bad about them.

Courts have ruled there is no citizens' right-to-privacy on public streets.

In the same room was Elbert County Sheriff Tim Norton, who pleaded with the panel to keep the county’s nine automated sentinels rolling.

“You all know that it’s a widespread county," he said. "You all know that we don’t have that many deputies who can respond in that timely of a manner.”

On any given night, there are only two patrol officers and one sergeant available to patrol Elbert County’s 1,841 square miles.

Sometimes, that number dwindles to one deputy and one sergeant, according to Elbert County Undersheriff Dave Fisher. He said the department currently employs 42 sworn officers, down seven from where it should be.

Fisher advised Flock Safety that its contract is not being renewed. All nine of Elbert County’s cameras will be removed this May.

Last June, a Flock camera alerted on a black Hyundai Accent careening 90-100 miles per hour on Kiowa-Bennett Road and County Road 194 in the middle of the afternoon. Elbert County Sheriffs learned that the vehicle, which had Iowa plates, had been stolen out of Denver. After a dangerous chase, the driver, Brittany Griffin, was arrested on suspicion of second-degree motor vehicle theft, felony vehicle alluding and reckless driving.

Before the cameras, law enforcement caught suspects the old-school way — relying on eyewitness descriptions. But rural areas with miles of wide, open roads present opportunities for joy rides and easy getaways.

We are going to miss more people driving stolen cars in the county who otherwise would have been caught,” said Elbert County Chief District Attorney Eva Wilson.

The loss of the cameras will "tie our hands even more," Sheriff Norton told The Denver Gazette.

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