Neighbors in Fort Mill aren’t taking police work into their own hands, but they are looking for ways to add a helping one.
Several neighborhoods have installed entrance cameras to capture license plate information. The idea is to provide police, should crime occur, information to help. In one neighborhood, it didn’t take long to prove it works.
“In our neighborhood and in a lot of houses in Fort Mill, people have security cameras and if something happens, all the neighbors use social media to talk to each other and share pictures,” said Jon Alion, homeowners association board member in Knightsbridge. “But we never had something where we could capture license plates.”
Alion’s neighborhood with about 500 homes installed cameras in November. The company is installing cameras in another Fort Mill neighborhood this month. Garrett Langley, CEO of Atlanta-based Flock Safety, said communities vary in how much they want publicized, but by year’s end, there could be more than 10 neighborhoods in Fort Mill with similar security setups.
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“We’re fortunate to have a handful of customers in the Fort Mill area,” he said. “It’s a growing population.”
Fort Mill could be part of a growing trend.
Flock Safety started less than two years ago and already has more than 15,000 homes in almost 20 states using the service. Arrests are made “almost on a daily basis,” Langley said, based on footage evidence. It was his own frustrations with property crime that led to the idea.
“It seemed like no matter what the police tried to do, they never had enough evidence to make an arrest,” he said. “I said, well, what evidence do you need?”
It only took a couple of months in Knightsbridge for the system to prove useful.
“We had a neighbor’s dog that was, I guess you’d call it ‘dognapped,’” Alion said.
Neighbors went to home security systems and to social media. They narrowed it down to a truck of a certain color, itself unlikely to be enough information for police to make an arrest.
“We started to pull up our camera system and got the license plate,” Alion said. “We gave it to the police, and they found the truck, and they found the dog. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without (the cameras).”
Rock Hill Police Department Capt. Brent Allmon said he’d like to see something similar in his community.
“I hope it’s something that may be able to catch on,” he said. “It can be extremely helpful. It’s not a cure-all, because the vehicle could be stolen, it could be a rental. It’s not 100 percent, but it’s an awesome tool to use.”
License plate information is important enough to police that departments have used monitoring systems.
“We use similar technology in certain areas, depending on if it’s a high crime area or if we have a trend in that area involving property crimes,” Allmon said. “It helps us to better investigate if something does happen.”
Recording license plates is not new to gated, private communities. York County and the surrounding area has several gated neighborhoods from River Hills in Lake Wylie and Sun City in Indian Land to Kimbrell Crossing in Fort Mill. Neighborhoods like Knightsbridge have public roads. As for privacy, new equipment can have high-tech features like a opt-out where residents can have their vehicles automatically removed from footage.
“The privacy isn’t a problem because we can restrict who has access to it,” Alion said. “And we’re not monitoring it all the time. We only look at it if something happens.”
Not everyone agrees.
The American Civil Liberties Union has concerns about license plate readers even for police use, let alone devices owned by neighbors.
“We have real concerns about the data,” said Susan Dunn, legal director with ACLU South Carolina. “We have concerns about how the data is used. We have real concerns about it being used by private folks who don’t have any requirements at all for what they do with it.”
Readers are a “legitimate tool” when, according to the group, they’re used for “narrowly tailored” law enforcement work like identifying vehicles that are stolen, involved in a crime or associated with fugitives. But keeping data or using it to monitor where people who aren’t committing any crime, or where there is no reason to suspect they would be, bothers the group.
The Knightsbridge homeowner’s group, however, is so impressed, they’re considering adding more camera systems. There is a only one way in and out of Knightsbridge, but cameras could be added by a storage lot and at the pool or clubhouse area.
“We started to see crime go up in surrounding neighborhoods, so we decided to look into adding a camera,” Alion said.
“There’s going to be a certain increase in the number of incidents,” Maj. Bryan Zachary with the Fort Mill Police Department said about population growth and crime, “but those are typically going to be property crimes.”
In May, the Fort Mill Times combed through crime data in town since 1985. While violent crimes didn’t show a stark increase as the population roughly quadrupled, there were more property crimes.
Langley says his company can help. For about $25 per homeowner per year, neighborhoods can add surveillance, software, monitoring and in some cases, up to a 50 percent reduction in crime.
“That’s the type of evidence that police can use to actually make arrests,” Langley said. “More and more communities are taking it into their own hands to help police.”
John Marks: email@example.com; @JohnFMTimes