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How One Police Department Set Out to Build Community Engagement Around License Plate Readers

A law enforcement agent’s study of one police department’s community-building efforts.

In Gallup’s recent poll on the public’s level of trust in the police, researchers found that 57% of Americans had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police, which is an increase that brings the public’s confidence level up after decreases in recent years.

For law enforcement, this increase is a step closer to bridging the gap between police and the community. But given citizen hesitancy in the role technology plays in policing, what ways can police maintain and continue to build trust with the communities they serve?

The Marietta Police Department (MPD) in Georgia used this question to take stock of their policing approach.

In gathering community feedback, the MPD found that many citizens expressed privacy concerns with police technology used around the city, specifically when it came to Automatic License Plate Reading (ALPR) systems. Some of the voiced concerns included a feeling of being tracked or surveilled, which ran in conflict with how the MPD wanted their residents to perceive the technology and their privacy.

The MPD knew communication and transparency would be the key to maintaining the strong positive relationship they have enjoyed with their community for years.

“The most powerful and effective crime-fighting and crime prevention tool we have in Marietta is the trust and cooperation of Marietta citizens,” said Marietta Police Department Chief of Police Dan Flynn in a letter to the city.

So while ALPRs would still be used in the city, police wanted to make efforts to engage their community so citizens could better understand the technology’s role in keeping the public safe.

Transparency and Communication

Since residents don’t have the same insight police did on the data ALPRs collect, many formed misconceptions that police are tracking and storing data to target innocent citizens.

From the other side of the fence, police see almost immediate success from the technology by way of reduced calls for service and the apprehension of wanted suspects.

To address the misconceptions and be as transparent as possible, the MPD prioritized open communication and information sharing with civilians.

The department began sharing stories on criminals apprehended using data collected from the systems. One such story headline read, “License Plate Reader Leads To Marietta Arrest Of Violent Suspect.”

The article championed how newly installed ALPRs in Marietta helped the department solve a crime.

The MPD wasn’t trying to use fear tactics to scare residents into believing the benefits of ALPRs.

Instead, they wanted to open a line of communication with civilians. The MPD wanted to share what officers were achieving and how their enforcement efforts, paired with useful technology, could keep citizens and properties safer.

Community Programs

Then, there was the topic of community engagement.

The MPD is familiar with the positive outcomes when communities work alongside law enforcement.

For years, the MPD initiated and maintained neighborhood watch programs. M-STAR neighborhoods, COPS Areas, and community town hall meetings were just some of the methods the department used. The MPD worked hard to create and fortify solid relationships with the neighborhoods they served.

Their focus was to express the importance of working together and of staying alert.

Still, they strived for more. The MPD then began educating residents on target hardening techniques. Threat assessments and environmental design techniques were taught to numerous neighborhoods.

Through these safety education programs, the department was able to see a decrease in neighborhood crime.

Citizens also had several channels to engage with their local law enforcement officers. 

The MPD knew they had to keep building on the success of their neighborhood programs when it came to ALPR technology. They wanted a way to compile all potential footage that civilians were capable of capturing across a variety of platforms and put them in one location.

With that in mind, they implemented a community partnership program called Systems in Marietta Intersecting with Law Enforcement (SMILE).

Through SMILE, homes and businesses have the option to register the location of their already-installed surveillance camera systems and ALPRs with the MPD. Whether the cameras are publicly or privately owned, and capture still pictures or video, homeowners can register their device with the MPD.

If a scenario presents itself, SMILE allows officers and detectives the ability to easily reach out to homeowners and businesses about potential evidence captured.

Moving Forward, Together

Through community programs, the MPD was able to build sustainable relationships between citizens and law enforcement.

They created safer neighborhoods through transparency and communication, and in addition, worked to change the original misconception of ALPR technology.


About the Author: 

Lieutenant Ben Mixon recently joined the Flock Safety team as a consultant. He has been an active officer in the law enforcement field for over 13 years and has worked all three uniform patrol shifts as an officer and Morning Watch and Day Watch as a Sergeant. He is currently a Lieutenant and has the opportunity to work in multiple specialized units throughout his career including SWAT for over 10 years. He attended Auburn University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

Lt. Mixon is a graduate of the Dale Carnegie Course: Effective Communications & Human Relations/Skills for Success and has received multiple certifications in various aspects of the law enforcement profession. He is projected to receive his Master’s Degree in May of 2019 and anticipates continuing his education and training in law enforcement.

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