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Cleveland City Council committee votes to move ahead with license plate reader & drone programs

Volodymyr Goinyk
The Department of Public Safety is seeking almost $500,000 from the state for 100 license plate readers, two drones and five portable cameras.

Cleveland is hoping to expand its camera surveillance network.

The Department of Public Safety is seeking almost $500,000 from the state for 100 license plate readers, two drones and five portable cameras.

The grant application, approved by city council’s safety committee at its meeting Wednesday, says the drones would be flown to the scene of a crime before officers arrive.

“Drones are showing to be effective in getting eyes on crime scenes before officers arrive, thereby providing important intelligence information to officers heading to the scene, and recording evidence,” the department wrote in its application.

But federal law requires a special waiver to fly drones beyond the operator’s line of sight. The city did not respond to Ideastream Public Media's inquiry about whether Cleveland will apply for a waiver.

The city announced last year it would explore starting a drone program but has yet to buy any.

License plate readers

Public Safety Director Karrie Howard said the license plate cameras would be attached to poles and traffic lights around the city.

“Footage can be reviewed to capture all vehicular traffic near the location and time of a violent crime,” Howard said.

It would be the first installation of these kinds of cameras by the city, which participates in a county license plate reader program but only has a few cameras installed as part of that program.

According to Howard, the cameras would capture every plate that passes by, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The city has built out its surveillance network, installing 1,200 surveillance cameras around the city, launching a pilot program of the gunshot detection system ShotSpotter, seeking real-time access to privately-owned surveillance cameras and allocating $4.5 million in COVID relief money to purchase more cameras.

“I don’t have to tell anyone at the table how important this is,” Safety Committee Chair Mike Polensek said about the license plate readers. “This is really part of our efforts to apprehend people involved in violent crimes in our neighborhoods.”

Body cameras

The Cleveland Division of Police is also extending a contract for body cameras, which are worn by all frontline Cleveland officers.

One councilmember at Wednesday’s meeting raised concerns about officers not turning on their cameras.

Ward 4 Councilmember Deborah Gray said when people file complaints against police misconduct, they often find the officer’s camera wasn’t on.

“And they are not believed that something happened during the time the camera went off and the officer tends to be favored,” Gray said.

City officials at the meeting responded that officers very rarely leave their cameras off and there are usually several officers at a scene with cameras capturing the incident.

In an examination of cases between 2019 through part of 2021, the Cleveland Community Police Commission found that the city issued 67 disciplinary decisions against officers for failing to have their camera on during encounters with the public.

It was the most frequent disciplinary decision during those years and typically results in a one-day suspension.

Copyright 2022 WCPN. To see more, visit WCPN.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.