Jackson Police Wanted Drones To Patrol Town But Ended Up Getting Cameras Instead

Although the Jackson police wanted drones to patrol the town, the City Council gave the OK to buy cameras instead. The police said with 3 million people coming through town every year, “there’s an underbelly” of “significant, serious crime” in the posh community.

July 10, 20237 min read

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The town of Jackson will install cameras to help police with their investigations. The cameras can identify the make, model and color of a vehicle, as well as its license plate. 

The police department had asked the council for permission to install cameras and buy drones. The council shot down the idea of police drones patrolling over Jackson, but warmed up to the use of cameras. 

Underbelly Of Crime

Jackson City Council member Jim Rooks told Cowboy State Daily that with 3 million people coming through the town every summer, there are more demands on local law enforcement than is typical for a town of fewer than 11,000 people. 

“We have pretty significant, serious crime. And if we don’t have homegrown crime, we have a lot of crime that comes to us,” Rooks said. “There’s an underbelly to Jackson Hole that a lot of people aren’t aware of.” 

Rooks said he’s a proponent of privacy rights and carefully considered, before voting to approve the cameras, if the technology would violate citizens’ privacy. He said it’s something personally important to him. 

“I turn my location services on my phone off when I'm not using it. I really hold my privacy near and dear,” he said. 

Passive System

Rooks said the cameras aren’t an active surveillance system, so there won’t be a police officer sitting at a desk watching the camera feeds and seeking out violations. It won’t trigger speed warnings, issue tickets or anything of the sort. 

He said he had some old cowboy friends with work trailers who were concerned the cameras would flag them for expired registration and send them tickets. 

Rooks said the system won’t do that. 

Time Saver

What the cameras will do, Rook explained, is save the police department time when an investigation is triggered. 

As an example, he pointed to the murder of Gabby Petito, who was strangled by her fiancé Brian Laundrie in 2022. 

Petito was reported missing Sept. 11 in the area of Grand Teton National Park, and a few days later police were seeking out Laundrie as a “person of interest.” Her body was later found near a campground in the park. 

Rooks said when something like that happens, the cameras would save the police a lot of time asking businesses and residents for access to their surveillance videos.

“I just don't want our officers doing that. I'd rather give them the tools they need,” Rooks said. 

Short Staffed 

The cameras, which are made by Flock Safety, will cost the town $184,000, as well as an annual maintenance fee of $87,000 beginning in fiscal year 2025. 

Four officers recently left the Jackson Police Department, leaving it short staffed. This point was raised at the June 5 council meeting when the use of the cameras were approved — the appropriation was approved at a previous meeting — but Jackson Police Chief Michelle Webber told Cowboy State Daily that the goal isn’t to replace officers with cameras. 

“You can't substitute an officer on the street,” Webber said. 

Even if the department wasn’t short staffed, she said, they would still want the cameras as a tool to reduce the burden on the department’s investigation resources. 

Evidence Desert

At the council meeting, Rooks referred to Jackson as an “evidence desert.” Jackson, being out of the way and yet heavily trafficked during the summer months, makes it an attractive destination for criminal activity, he said. 

“If you're a criminal, and you're spinning the globe and trying to decide where to commit crimes, you're not going to pick the spots that have incredible surveillance,” Rooks said. 

In an interview, Webber said the cameras will make Jackson less appealing to those who want to commit crimes. 

“Nobody wants to ever make themselves easy targets,” Webber said. 

Updated Policies

The approval of the cameras comes with the condition that the police department work with the council to update its policy handbook, which will provide further guidance on the use of the cameras and management of the data. 

Councilor Arne Jorgensen, who voted against approving the cameras, told Cowboy State Daily the updated policies will explain how the data is used, how it’s preserved and how it gets shared. 

“I trust our local law enforcement. I trust our community to have that discussion,” Jorgensen said. 

For Jorgensen, the concern was the annual maintenance fee the town will begin incurring in 2025. 

“We have some budget realities that we have not fully addressed in the town of Jackson. I’m leery of adding recurring expenses when we haven’t addressed an underlying structural issue within our budget,” he said. 

Hot Lists 

Jorgensen said he’s also concerned about the use of “hot lists.” 

“For very legitimate reasons, law enforcement agencies have reasons to be cooperative with their colleagues around the country,” Jorgensen said. 

However, there are laws around the country that aren’t priorities for the community of Jackson, he said.

As an example, he pointed to laws in California regarding the purchase of ammunition in other states to bring back into California. Idaho passed laws limiting the ability of teenagers to cross state lines to access abortion. 

He said there is a long list of crimes — from auto thefts to murder to child abductions — that the town of Jackson should be coordinating investigative efforts with agencies in other states. 

But he said when the policy manual is updated, he will look to include language that prevents the cameras from being used in matters that aren’t a priority for the Jackson Police Department. 

Misinformation

Holly Beilin, director of communications for Flock Safety, told Cowboy State Daily that Jackson will be the first community in Wyoming to use its cameras. 

Across the country, the cameras are used in 3,700 communities, according to the Flock website. 

Beilin said the company’s technology has helped law enforcement recover more than 200 missing people, including Amber Alert cases and missing senior citizens. 

She said there’s a lot of misinformation spreading about the cameras and how they’re used. The cameras, Beilin said, don’t have any video component and no facial recognition capabilities. The only data collected is related to the vehicle and the license plate. The search capabilities are limited to those aspects, so law enforcement can’t search for the race or gender of people. They can search for a white van or a black pickup truck. 

“There’s frankly no ability to search for anything related to people," Beilin said. 

So, for example, if the camera spots a license plate of a vehicle that’s been reported stolen, Flock Safety’s database contains no information on the registered owner, his or her date of birth, social security number — none of that. 

It would tell police where the vehicle was spotted and provide a still image of it. 

Cyber Security 

The cameras don’t have public internet protocol addresses, which Beilin said makes it impossible to be accessed remotely and hacked. The data is fully encrypted and stored for 30 days on the company’s cloud, after which it’s automatically deleted. 

Any search query entered into the system, Beilin said, is recorded and the information stored indefinitely. That means who made the search and what he or she searched for, and why the search was made, is recorded. 

“You cannot do a search without putting in a search justification,” Beilin said. 

The police chief or any council member will be able to audit that log. 

“So there’s really strong accountability measures put into place as well,” Beilin said.

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