License plate readers coming to Smithfield

Published 9:51 am Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Smithfield’s Town Council on Feb. 6 approved the purchase of 11 cameras that police plan to place throughout the town.

According to Smithfield Police Lt. William Wooley, the town is one of only three Hampton Roads localities that don’t presently use the automated license plate readers made by Atlanta-based Flock Group Inc. A camera in neighboring Suffolk, he said, recorded a vehicle suspected in the theft of four lawnmowers last year from Powerhouse Equipment on West Main Street in Smithfield as the car traveled back and forth four times between Smithfield and Portsmouth.

While they’re designed to capture still images of the backs of cars, they can also occasionally help in identifying suspected criminals. A Flock camera owned by Jersey Park Apartments, Wooley said, was instrumental in capturing images of 20-year-old George Harrison, whom police arrested and charged with firing multiple shots into a vehicle three days after the Nov. 20 incident.

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“There’s a lot of times when something happens in an area where there’s no camera, there’s nothing to go on … maybe we’ll get a lab result, maybe we’ll get something from that, but we need some place to start,” Wooley told the council in January.

The solar-powered cameras operate by connecting to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, or NCIC. If a photographed license plate is a match to a vehicle reported stolen or connected to a crime, officers in the area would receive an alert.

Smithfield Police plan to place pairs of cameras at five locations. One pair of license plate readers and a third camera capable of panning from left to right will be placed on Middle Street. Another pair will be placed at the Waterworks Road entrance to town near Dave’s Service Center. Battery Park Road, the intersection of the Route 10 Bypass and West Main Street, and the corner of Benns Church Boulevard and Turner Drive are also each slated to receive a pair of license plate readers to capture incoming and outgoing traffic.

The council authorized an initial cost of $33,750 for the 11 cameras, which they plan to install on an unspecified date next month. Smithfield Police also plan to purchase an additional six cameras to cover other entrances into town in 2025.

Wooley said police determined the placement locations by looking at which roads have the highest traffic volumes, areas of town with the most reported crimes and right-of-way restrictions. Police plan to place the cameras on power poles as state law presently prohibits camera placement in a Virginia Department of Transportation right-of-way, though two bills, one in the House of Delegates and the other in the state Senate, propose allowing license plate readers on VDOT highways and roads.

The SPD’s analysis of frequent crime reports, Wooley said, led to the placements along West Main Street. In addition to the Jersey Park Nov. 20 shooting, which resulted in no injuries, there was a shooting last February at the same complex that injured a 62-year-old man and last year’s July 18 double homicide, also at Jersey Park.

One of two suspects – 21-year-old Kevin Richards – is awaiting grand jury indictment in connection with the February 2023 shooting, while the other, 20-year-old Jakye Jackson, remains at large. Police have yet to name suspects in the double homicide.

“We are still following leads,” Wooley said.

Police Chief Alonzo Howell said the Flock cameras can help generate new leads not only by checking license plate numbers but capturing other details, such as the make and model of a car and any prominent bumper stickers. If a witness were to recall a suspect drove a red car with a particular bumper sticker, the Flock system allows law enforcement to search a nationwide repository of photos for a match.

“Of course you’ve always got the civil liberties aspect of it, the privacy issues and things like that, but someone that’s spent their life enforcing the law, I think most people – most that don’t commit crimes – would support this type of approach,” said Smithfield Mayor Steve Bowman, who preceded Howell as police chief.

Provisions of the two General Assembly bills, both of which are pending in the Senate, would require all data collected by license plate readers to be permanently deleted within 30 days, prohibit sale of the data and prohibit law enforcement from using the data to interfere with lawful activities or track people who engage in lawfully protected speech.

The town and Isle of Wight County are involved in separate talks, unrelated to Smithfield’s Flock camera proposal, to place automated speed limit enforcement cameras outside school zones. Last year, the county proposed coordinating its efforts with Smithfield and Windsor for schools located within each town’s limits, but the three governing bodies have yet to reach an agreement.