PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence is on the verge of installing dozens of cameras that take photos of cars and drivers’ license plates, as part of a plan aimed at fighting crime that has raised privacy concerns.
The cameras, owned by the company Flock Safety, are being provided to the city for free as part of a one-year pilot program. The contract — obtained by Target 12 — says the 25 cameras will cost $71,250 for the year, but the bill will be picked up by Axon Enterprises, another private company that makes police technology.
The city would only pay for the cameras if they decide to continue with the program after the pilot.
Col. Hugh Clements, the Providence police chief, said the city would likely want dozens more cameras in the future in order to cover a larger portion of the city.
“If this technology is successful the way it will be, we’ll be looking at a larger number,” Clements said. He said the initial 25 cameras are in the process of being installed, but have not yet been activated.
A formal announcement is expected before the cameras are turned on, potentially by the end of the month.
“Before we implement, this will be very transparent,” Clements said.
Neither the contract nor any legislation related to license plate cameras have been brought before the City Council for vetting or approval, a process that typically happens with new programs.
But since this contract is technically free to the city, it didn’t meet the $5,000 threshold that would have required it to be brought to the council for a public vetting. (A proposed charter change would raise that threshold even higher, to $15,000.)
Councilors John Goncalves and Rachel Miller are among those calling on the Police Department to halt the program until it can be further vetted. The two are introducing a resolution at Thursday’s City Council meeting that would ask police leaders to “refrain from implementing this technology until the council has had an opportunity to review the department’s plans for the technology and its proposed policy implementing those plans.”
“These cameras are particularly concerning because they’re continuous,” said Miller, D-Ward 13. “They certainly have the capacity to track people’s comings and goings in a way … that I think many people would consider to be an infringement on their civil rights.”
The license plate readers are not Providence’s first foray into automated traffic surveillance. The city already has both speed cameras and red-light cameras, the latter of which record high-quality color video.
But both of those existing devices capture images of drivers who have allegedly just committed a traffic offense, while the license plate readers capture images of all cars on the road, allowing police to then search the database for vehicles they want to locate.
“We believe people really aren’t aware of the enormous capabilities that they have to spy on individuals,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island.
While the technology is referred to as a “license plate” reader, Flock’s website says the camera also captures the car’s make and model and other elements like bumper stickers and roof racks.
“We believe that if you’re going to have something as intrusive as this type of surveillance, it’s something that needs vetting by the city or town council,” Brown said. “Limitations on how these cameras are used need to be put in ordinance, so everybody is aware on how they can and how they cannot be used.”
Council President John Igliozzi said he is “fully supportive” of the cameras, saying he visited Cranston to see how the system can track down criminals.
“Anytime you can use modern methods to fight crime and keep the people of Providence safe, we should explore that technology responsibly and respect privacy,” Igliozzi said. “If you’re not a criminal, you have nothing to fear over these cameras. I fully believe in Chief Clements for how the system will be implemented.”
Providence Police have been fairly tight-lipped about the program. Miller said she first learned about the plan to deploy the cameras from the ACLU, which sent a letter to councilors in March.
ACLU officials said they only found out about the cameras after Col. Michael Winquist, the police chief in Cranston, mentioned at a State House hearing that Providence was “actively looking at” joining Cranston in deploying the cameras.
After the ACLU’s letter came out in March, Providence police spokeswoman Lindsay Lague would not say if the cameras were under consideration by the department.
“There is nothing before the [Board of Contract and Supply] for this technology use at this point in time,” Lague said on March 30, a full week after Target 12 first inquired if Providence was considering implementing the cameras.
In fact, the contract with Flock shows the city received a quote for the cameras on Jan. 24, with a possible start date in March.
Mayor Jorge Elorza later confirmed the existence of the pilot program at an unrelated news conference on May 23, and said the cameras would likely be deployed by the end of June.
“We’ve consulted with several other jurisdictions and with professionals in the field, and they rave about this technology,” Elorza said in May. “Most people who commit a crime, and especially a violent crime, use a vehicle.”
The technology allows police to be notified when a certain license plate is detected by the automated readers, and also allowing officers to search the database of photos when they are looking for a car involved in a crime, a suspect with a warrant, or even a missing person.
In Cranston, where there are 29 cameras, Winquist said the license plate readers have resulted in 65 arrests, 38 stolen cars recovered and seven missing people located since they were deployed last August.
“Several high-profile crimes have been solved since the cameras were implemented, including bank robberies, carjackings, felony assaults, apprehension of a homicide suspect,” Winquist told Target 12.
Providence has not yet disclosed the locations of the 25 expected cameras, which could be on city-owned poles or dedicated 12-foot poles provided by Flock. The small cameras are each accompanied by a solar panel that powers the device.
“We have identified the preliminary locations for the 25 devices, however they are subject to change as the policy is finalized,” said Theresa Agonia, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office.
The Police Department is also still finalizing the policy for using the cameras, a draft version of which was released on June 22. The public was able to comment on the policy via email until July 8, but there were no public hearings held on the matter.
Target 12 has requested copies of the comments, which have not yet been made public.
“PPD is still reviewing comments submitted through our public feedback process and we plan to have a finalized policy and program by the end of the month,” Agonia said. “As the city communicated in May, we are going through a process before moving forward with this new technology and investigative tool in PPD. The devices will not go live without communication from the city first.”
The draft policy shows that officers would be prohibited from using the license plate database for personal use or to harass or intimidate someone, and photos on the Flock server will be automatically purged after 30 days unless they are needed for a criminal investigation. (In that case, the photos would be downloaded to offline storage.)
The contract with Flock says the company may share footage with other government agencies and third-party entities if compelled by law or if Flock has a “good faith belief” that sharing the images is necessary. Providence’s draft policy says the Police Department would not allow images to be shared with federal immigration authorities.
Mayoral candidates split on the cameras
Target 12 asked Providence’s three mayoral candidates, all Democrats, what they think about the license plate cameras.
Both Nirva LaFortune and Gonzalo Cuervo said they opposed the current camera rollout, while Brett Smiley indicated general support for the cameras.
“Technology, with appropriate protections for both privacy and civil liberties, can make Providence a safer and more livable city,” Smiley said. “I look forward to implementing responsible technological tools to help our public safety employees better do their jobs.”
LaFortune, a sitting city councilor, called for the implementation to be delayed.
“The councilwoman sees some significant privacy concerns with this project, as well as with the level of community engagement up until now,” LaFortune campaign manager Matt Rauschenbach said, noting that the public comments have not yet been released.
“She understands and appreciates the desire to think about ways to adopt or improve technology to make Providence safer, but installing license plate readers without input from the public or the City Council is a problem,” Rauschenbach said.
Cuervo similarly said the cameras should wait until legislators weigh in.
“The deployment of license-plate reading technology raises serious privacy concerns, especially in the absence of state or municipal laws governing the collection, storage, and use of data collected,” Cuervo said. “As mayor, I would refrain from implementing this technology until the Providence City Council and/or the R.I. General Assembly have an opportunity to set policy guidelines through a public process.”