PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence police announced Wednesday the city’s new license plate cameras will be turned on within 30 days, once officers are trained on the new technology.
The 25 automated cameras, roughly half of which have already been installed, are causing controversy because of privacy concerns. The cameras are continuous and take photos of the backs of all cars that pass by. The pictures are stored for 30 days before being deleted.
Police tout the cameras as an important crime-fighting tool that will help them catch criminals and recover stolen vehicles.
The technology, owned by the company Flock Safety, can alert police if the cameras detect a license plate on a “hot list.” Police can also proactively search the database of photos for the past 30 days if they are looking for a specific car.
“The concerns about civil liberties being compromised will not materialize,” Mayor Jorge Elorza said during a news conference Wednesday morning announcing the deployment of the cameras.
As Elorza spoke, a small group carrying signs saying “Block Flock” and decrying “mass surveillance” demonstrated outside the police department.
Elorza noted the city experienced a number of shootings over the weekend, including the murder of a 15-year-old boy, and said the family of the victim had asked him to put more cameras up throughout the city.
“We’re confident that this is technology that will allow us to fight crime and send a very clear message to anyone out there that’s considering committing a crime in the city of Providence, especially the most violent forms of crime, your chances of being caught and held accountable are going to go up significantly because of this,” Elorza said.
Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré declined to release the list of locations where the cameras will be located, citing the possibility of vandalism. But he said the cameras will be placed in “hot spots” for crime across the city.
The ultimate goal is to get dozens more cameras, after the one-year pilot program is complete.
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In response to concerns about the cameras, the police department amended its draft policy on Wednesday to include a requirement that monthly reports be made to the City Council for the first year of the program, and quarterly after that. The amended policy also says the Providence External Review Authority (PERA) will be provided with audit reports, but the reports will not be made public.
Col. Hugh Clements, the police chief, said a small number of officers would have access to the Flock camera data at first. It was not immediately clear if or when a wider circle of Providence’s police personnel would be able to access the database of photos.
Police will share the license plate data with other law enforcement agencies, Paré confirmed, but will not share it with immigration authorities.
While Flock’s contract with the city says the private company may share data with third parties, Flock spokesperson Josh Thomas — who attended the news conference — said the company has never shared data with immigration authorities. He also said Providence police would have full control over the images captured by the Flock system.
No legislation regarding the cameras has been brought before the City Council, prompting a majority of councilors to sign on to a resolution asking that the cameras be paused until they can be further regulated.
“When there is a new technology or anything that’s coming online that involves this much personal data of our city residents, the resolution’s asking that we have a public conversation about it, that we give the public a chance to weigh in and for the full council to be informed,” said Councilor Rachel Miller, one of the sponsors, at a council meeting last week.
At least nine of the 15 councilors have signed on as co-sponsors.
It’s not clear if the resolution, which was referred to the Finance Committee, will get a vote before the cameras are turned on. Council President John Igliozzi, a strong supporter of the cameras, deferred to the Finance Committee chair when asked if he would let the resolution come to a vote.
The Finance chair, Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan, said she was not sure if the resolution will be considered before the cameras are turned on, since the council takes recess for the month of August.
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While city contracts are typically vetted and approved by the City Council, the process is only required if the contract is worth more than $5,000.
In this case, the $72,000 contract signed in May is being paid for by another private company, Axon, so the cost to the city is nothing and the contract did not go through the typical public process.
A spokesperson for Axon, asked why they would pay for Flock’s cameras, said the companies are teaming up on a study of the camera technology conducted by the National Police Foundation.
“In February of 2022, Providence agreed to participate in this study along with several other agencies across the country,” the Axon spokesperson said. “While many recognize the crime-reduction benefits of ALPR technology, questions have been raised about how effective they are at reducing all crime types as well the civil liberties and privacy implications of this technology. This study will attempt to provide a robust research design and methodology to address those questions and concerns.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island has warned that the technology can easily be abused, and argues it should not be implemented until there is legislation governing its use.
“Big Brother is here,” the ACLU tweeted.
Providence police did not initially confirm they were considering getting the cameras when Target 12 first asked questions about the program in March. Elorza later announced the existence of the pilot program at an unrelated news conference in May.
The license plate recognition technology is also being used in other Rhode Island communities such as Cranston where it has garnered similar concerns, though police there tout the dozens of arrests and stolen cars recovered as a result of the cameras.
Flock says the cameras are currently in use in Cranston, Glocester, Lincoln, Smithfield, Woonsocket and Tiverton, and will soon be installed in Bristol.