NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO) recently brought forward a request for new surveillance hardware. The board of commissioners approved the deal earlier this month, without seeking competing bids, but the contract was never signed.
Despite giving an initial thumbs up, the county later decided to walk away from the purchase of new gear after learning more about the firm NHCSO wanted to contract with.
On local law enforcement’s wishlist this holiday season was a fleet of free-standing cameras — equipped with automatic license plate recognition technology — capable of recording myriad data about passing vehicles from their intended posts at schools and parks across the county.
The camera manufacturer, Flock Safety, Inc., had offered a promotional, two-year deal to the sheriff’s office. For $43,750, the company would install 15 motion-activated cameras, provide one year of service and throw in a free perk. Costs for year two were set at $65,000.
Pursuant to state law, local governments that desire to ink deals in excess of $30,000 typically must open the projects for bid, helping to ensure a competitive playing field and reasonable prices. There are numerous exceptions: for example, if a needed product is only available from a single source, or if “standardization or compatibility is the overriding consideration.”
Flock Safety positioned its cameras as the lone option on the market fully supported by Axon Enterprise, Inc., the public safety technology company that makes the body-worn cameras utilized by NHCSO. Personnel at the sheriff’s office, and within the county’s legal and finance departments, pushed forward the agreement with Flock Safety to the board of commissioners citing the exemption related to compatibility.
Axon also manages evidence.com, a cloud-based system that allows law enforcement to centrally store and manage data.
The pitch was purportedly exclusive: Evidence recorded on Flock cameras would be automatically downloaded to evidence.com, making for seamless and complete integration with mainstream technology already in use by local law enforcement.
On Dec. 6, the board of commissioners approved a resolution to award Flock Safety a contract as a sole source vendor, formally foregoing the bidding process and giving the sheriff’s office a green light to contract with Flock Safety (the vote was one of three items placed on the meeting’s consent agenda; no substantive public discussion on the topic occurred).
Two days after the vote — prior to the signing of the contract — new information emerged, raising questions about the methodology by which Flock Safety and Axon present themselves to local governments: not just in New Hanover County but around the nation.
As it turned out, Flock Safety is one of multiple companies in the realm of vehicle recognition able to integrate with Axon’s evidence.com to some degree. What is unique about the pair’s relationship, however, is that Axon has made a “minority, non-controlling investment in Flock Safety,” and the two companies tout an official partnership. The financial terms of the arrangement are undisclosed; according to Axon’s website, Axon has “the ability to commit [to Flock Safety] additional capital over time through warrants conditional on certain partnership performance metrics.”
The county is not moving forward with a Flock Safety contract at this time, according to chief communications officer Jessica Loeper.
“The Finance Office was made aware that there are other companies who can integrate with Axon, but Flock is the only one directly supported by Axon,” Loeper wrote to Port City Daily in an email. “Given this information, the county’s Finance and Legal departments determined that the contract should go out to bid if the Sheriff’s Office determines it wants to move forward with a software and hardware solution for automatic license plate detection.”
Flock Safety cameras are currently used by more than 1,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide. The Atlanta-headquartered company was founded in 2017, and reportedly has raised more than $230 million in venture capital, according to its website. Its signature Falcon cameras can capture high-resolution photos of fast-moving vehicles even in adverse weather conditions — matching entries against various hot lists. And, in addition to analyzing license plates, Falcon cameras log the finer details about passing cars, like the presence of alterations, damages or bumper stickers. Homeowners associations, too, are buying the Falcon.
“Flock Safety is the only Axon LPR [license plate recognition] integration Partner,” according to Flock Safety spokesperson Holly Beilin, “so we are the only LPR provider who is natively and officially integrated with evidence.com.” (Beilin declined to comment on the specific situation at hand in New Hanover County.)
The company also partners exclusively with Axon as the only license plate recognition provider to be integrated with Axon’s Fleet 3 in-car video system — a device attachable to squad vehicles that offers prospective law enforcement agencies the ability to “[t]urn your fleet into a dynamic network of plate-reading cameras.”
Axon announced in June that Fleet 3 had begun shipping to customers. The press release mentioned additional partnerships with Cradlepoint, Inc., a wireless mobile network solutions company, and Airgain Incorporated, which produces antennas that wirelessly connect Axon products. Sheriff’s office spokesperson Lt. Jerry Brewer said NHCSO currently uses the second generation model, but is transitioning to the new model.
“Axon’s partnership allows police departments to deploy a network of both fixed and mobile ALPR [automatic license plate recognition] systems at a disruptively affordable price by offering Flock Safety’s industry-leading and ethically-designed fixed ALPR solution alongside Axon’s Fleet 3 in-car video and mobile ALPR solution,” according to the release.
In early November, a business specialist within the sheriff’s office informed two county risk management officials in an email that NHCSO would shortly be routing a contract with Flock Safety.
“This will be a rush,” according to the business specialist’s email, “as we need to get it in place by 12/31 to get the promotional discount.”
According to materials obtained by Port City Daily, Flock Safety ran a promotion starting in September through which customers that sign a two-year contract for at least 15 Falcon cameras would also receive 1 square mile of gunshot detection coverage free for 12 months (after the free year, the standard rate of $25,000 per square mile of audio coverage applies).
On Dec. 8, two days after commissioners voted on the contract, the county received a warning from the competition. In an email to commissioners, the executive vice president of a competing firm hypothesized that Axon and Flock had indicated to the county it would be impossible for other license plate recognition vendors to achieve integration with Axon technology. Yet, such a claim was not true, he reported.
The competitor — who attached a screenshot depicting data from his company’s devices integrated on evidence.com — asked the board of commissioners to rescind the award to Flock and seek out bids.
In a letter dated that same day, Josh Isner, chief revenue officer of Axon, addressed the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office. In a brief message, he relayed that a “sole source justification exists because [Axon] is the only digital evidence management system with the express right to integrate Flock’s automated license plate recognition technology with Axon Evidence services.” Flock Safety sent at least one other sole source justification letter to New Hanover County after Dec. 8.
The Wednesday before Christmas, Lisa Wurtzbacher, the county’s chief financial officer, gave a rundown to commissioners and top officials. In an email to them, she said the sole source contract request involving Flock Safety, presented at the Dec. 6 meeting, “was based on information received by the Sheriff’s office that indicated Flock Safety was the only Axon integration partner.”
Further conversations had revealed that in the vehicle recognition business, “Axon may formally support only Flock Safety,” but at the same time, “quite a number” of providers in the field already integrate with Axon. “With that additional information,” Wurtzbacher wrote, “we would like to change direction with this sole source contract and, instead, pursue bidding this service out.”
Loeper, the county spokesperson, said finance staff plan to review this situation in detail and will likely be developing an internal process through which sole source contract requests would receive further vetting for additional verification that they meet statutory requirements.
Like law enforcement agencies across the country, NHCSO utilizes both Axon products and evidence.com. The integration achieved through unification of both Axon and Flock Safety’s services can certainly be advantageous. According to materials related to the Dec. 6 board of commissioners resolution, moving forward with Flock Safety would “prevent the need to purchase or utilize additional storage means.” Some in the competition, however, believe Axon and Flock Safety have tilted the playing field by leveraging their financial relationship.
Local governments that have previously contracted with Flock Safety have done so both with and without the bidding process. Given the prevalence of Axon technology among law enforcement and the widespread use of evidence.com, some localities have presented bidding criteria for license plate recognition that inherently advantage Flock Safety.
Springfield, Illinois, for instance, solicited bids from license plate recognition providers this year. The 11-point scoring criteria included “integration with existing systems” and “integration with onboard cameras in squad cars” (the Springfield Police Department uses Axon body-worn cameras).
Of the three bidders, Flock Safety emerged with the highest overall evaluation score — the highest score gets the recommendation — despite placing third in the “cost to the city” criteria.
When Huntington Beach, California sought to contract with a license plate recognition firm, it initially required prospective bidders to come prepared with systems integrated with evidence.com. A competitor then raised concerns with the city: Since Flock Safety had the sole official partnership with Axon, in a worst case scenario other firms could see their less-official ties with evidence.com get restricted if such a prerequisite existed.
In November, Huntington Beach decided to cancel the bid and planned to restart the process, this time without listing integration with evidence.com among the requirements for bidders.
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