Washington County community debates between public safety and privacy

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St. Mary’s Point— a city of just a few hundred people along the St. Croix River— is in the midst of a debate about cameras, safety, and privacy.

In June, the city council voted to spend $10,000 in COVID funds to install four to five license plate readers.

The devices would scan and record license plates of vehicles in the community.

“When I heard of it, it freaked me out,” said resident Zachary Quinn. “I grew up in this neighborhood. I’m raising a son in this neighborhood, and I don’t want him being tracked. I don’t think any us should want to be tracked.”

That debate dominated the public comment period of the community’s Tuesday night council meeting.

Several dozen people packed into a small council room to voice their concern about the plate readers.  

“We don’t always feel like residents who’ve been here for thirty years have gotten straight answers from the council,” said Paul Brown, one of those who spoke. “How many people want this council to change their mind?”

“I support a camera system going into this neighborhood, one that we own,” Quinn added. “One that we’re not paying $10,000 a year to rent.”

Mayor Jay Roettger told the group a one-year contract with Flock Safety, an Atlanta company— was an experiment to see if it would help fight petty crime in the area.

“Theft, vandalism at St. Mary’s Point, at St. Croix Beach, it’s all on the uptick through the valley,” Roettger says.

Some residents say there have been issues with thefts from mailboxes and car break-ins.

“I would not be opposed to (plate readers) because we do have a fair amount of people driving around, looking for something around here,” notes Cindy Buckland, who was out Tuesday afternoon walking her dogs. “They kind of get rashes of them, if you don’t lock your car at night. They’re running through your car, taking things.”

Buckland says she supports the idea, as long as any recorded data is deleted after thirty days— and if only police are given access.

Roettger says the company has agreed to those conditions— but another council member noted he disagrees with the arrangement because the sheriff’s office has still not worked out some details about working with the Flock Safety system.

Some residents say they feel they were kept in the dark about the council’s approval of the project.

“Has it ever on anyone’s mind to perhaps notify us so we can talk about this,” one woman in the audience told the council. “You’re doing this for us. But for a lot of us, it was a surprise.”

A Flock Safety spokesperson says the company has contracted with about a half-dozen cities in Minnesota, some smaller, and some larger than St. Mary’s Point.  

“It is a growth area for us, we call it an emerging market,” says Holly Beilin. “We don’t believe data footage needs to be stored indefinitely. Thirty days, we believe strikes a balance.”

Under the security camera access policy, city clerk/administrator Cindie Reiter would be the only person allowed access to the Flock System data— and that information would have to be requested by law enforcement.

The use of the cameras has been part of a statewide debate for years.

In 2015, a newly passed law required data unrelated to a criminal investigation must be deleted after sixty days— and that that information would not be public.

Police agencies that use the data must keep logs of when that material is used, and must submit to independent audits once every two years.

Still, longtime resident Peter Quinn says he had concerns.

“It’s a privacy issue. Why do we need them?” he asked. “What I’m concerned with, they didn’t give any opportunity for input. It was, I think we heard about it in June, and then it was a done deal.”

In the end, the city council decided to put the project on hold, until it can be examined further.

Stephanie Popovich says one of the proposed camera locations was a street corner right next to her house.

She adds she’d be happy if there cameras were not installed.   “I do feel the money could have been represented somewhere else in the community besides these cameras,” she says. “Just without having any notification it was going to be there, that does make me wonder a little bit, why it’s going to be there and I don’t know which way the camera will be angled, what exactly it’s going to be taking pictures of.”