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'It's always watching': Warren County town to use 24-hour cameras, controversial facial recognition

A small town in Warren County will launch a new police system that implements facial recognition and vehicle scanners.

Posted Updated

By
Keenan Willard
, WRAL eastern North Carolina reporter
NORLINA, N.C. — A small town in Warren County will launch a new police system that implements facial recognition and vehicle scanners.

The police chief behind the effort is looking to put Norlina on the cutting edge of digital policing.

"The camera never takes a lunch break, the camera never has to use the restroom, the camera never has to get any sleep," Norlina Police Chief Keishawn Mayes said. "So, it’s always watching."

The town of Norlina has only 1,200 full-time residents. Mayes hopes this project will put the town on the map.

Mayes said that in one room at the police station, officers are able to see the "entire town at one time."

Community leaders and activists have concern over this new system, which they say could lead to racial profiling.

"This will clearly not only be an invasion of privacy for the citizens of this town, but all those that may past through this town, as well," said Kerwin Pittman, spokesperson with the group EmanicpateNC.

"One must ask is this merely an attempt to monitor and essentially track the citizens of this town?" he asked.

Norlina’s cameras will use facial recognition to create a database of everyone who enters the town. The new technology has been banned for police use in several major cities, including Boston, Oakland, Portland and San Francisco. Experts say this is because facial recognition software is the least accurate and most invasive.
The technology is particularly bad at identifying Black women ages 18 to 30, according to experts at Harvard.

"Facial recognition systems has shown disproportionate error rates in identifying Black and brown people, ultimately leading to wrongful arrests of black and brown people," Pittman said.

Many advocates argue that this kind of technology violates Americans' right to privacy.

Officers would also be able to upload mugshots to the system to search and see if anyone on the cameras is wanted for a crime.

"This is the power of the camera," Building Automation Services CEO Robert Koonts said. "I would call it groundbreaking."

The new surveillance system means that the whole town will have their own free WiFi.

But former police officer and community leader Rev. Bill Kearney said giving police access to citywide facial recognition could do more harm than good.

"To me, it’s an invasion of privacy," Kearney said. "It’s a real cost to the community, and now I’m thinking, what is the crime rate in Norlina to justify this degree of invasiveness?"

Mayes said that this form of policing is not a reaction to high crime, but instead said his department is trying to be "proactive instead of reactive."

The cameras are on track to be fully operational by the end of the year.

Chief Mayes is also running for Warren County Sheriff, and if elected, he said he would expand the camera system to every community in the county.