Yakima police use AI-powered license plate readers to find suspects’ cars in real time

Yakima Flock Cameras

YAKIMA, Wash. — In the past five months, Flock Safety cameras have allowed Yakima-area law enforcement officers to arrest an accused kidnapper and child molester, identify a fatal hit-and-run suspect and recover a record number of stolen vehicles.

“It’s one officer that never sleeps,” Yakima Police Capt. Jay Seely said. “Most of our criminals move throughout the area in a vehicle and this will limit that ability.”

Flock cameras have helped police recover 37 stolen vehicles, arrest 28 violent persons, serve 19 warrants and locate 16 missing persons — just in the last month.

According to the Yakima Police Department’s transparency portal, they have 33 automated license plate recognition cameras placed across the city — all enabled with artificial intelligence that’s helping agencies across the county solve crimes.

“The number one example was in the death of Wendy Baker, the bicyclist,” Yakima County Sheriff Bob Udell said. “The Flock cameras gave us critical information on the movement of the suspect vehicle.”

Seely said while suspects have attempted to obscure license plates, change the color of the car or remove plates altogether, it doesn’t help to hide them from the cameras — it actually makes them more recognizable.

“You can spray paint your vehicle but it’s not going to change — that Flock camera system that will still notify us that now you have a different color vehicle,” Seely said.

Yakima Police Chief Matt Murray said he wants the community to know the cameras are not looking inside cars or being used for traffic enforcement.

“Anybody can go on our portal and see exactly what Flock shows,” Murray said. “None of the data is kept for more than 30 days.”

Murray said before officers search the system, they must state a law enforcement purpose, like trying to find a vehicle they believe was used in a drive-by shooting, just based off of a description of the car’s make, model or color.

“There’s been instances where we’ve shaved off days on  investigations because we’ve had that instant feedback and instant information for us,” Seely said. 

Seely said that’s been particularly helpful in cases where sometimes all officers have to go on is a loose description of a vehicle

Officers seeking specific suspects or vehicles can input their license plate numbers into the system and receive a hit in real time whenever that car passes a Flock camera.

“We are recovering stolen vehicles much faster and at a much higher rate than ever in a five-year history,” Murray said.

Murray said they’re hoping to get additional stationary cameras, as well as some that can be moved around as needed. Additionally, both YPD and the sheriff’s office will have Flock cameras in their new patrol vehicles.

“The more and more and more we get these cameras, the less anybody’s going to be able to commit a crime with a car,” Murray said.

Murray said they have a few of their new patrol vehicles already, but supply chain issues have been delaying the delivery of the remaining cars. He said they hope to have all of them by the end of the year.

The sheriff’s office is also dealing with supply chain issues having delayed their new vehicles from coming in. Udell said he hopes they’ll get their new vehicles in early next year.

Murray said if community members or local businesses want to help make the city safer, they can get together to purchase their own Flock cameras for their neighborhoods.

“As long as you share that data with us, it is exponentially more than what we’re able to afford on our own,” Murray said.

Flock cameras can be purchased and installed for a $350 fee and customers pay an annual fee of $2,500 per camera.