ACLU urges 3 RI police departments to end use of license plate recognition cameras

West Bay

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is demanding the cities of Cranston, Pawtucket and Woonsocket to stop using automated license plate readers.

The cameras were installed in “strategic areas” last month as part of a 60-day trial with Flock Safety.

In a letter to the city council and mayor of all three cities, the ACLU argued the cameras were installed “without public notice, input or statutory guidance.”

The ACLU also claimed the license plate readers capture “far more information that merely license plate numbers, and can even search for cars by their bumper stickers.”

“The inevitability of the expansion of these camera programs into more extensive and intrusive types of surveillance only compounds the seriousness of a lack of statutory safeguards surrounding their usage,” the ACLU wrote.

Cranston Police Chief Michael Winquist previously stated the cameras solely capture still images of rear license plates and can alert police when a wanted or stolen vehicle drives by.

“These cameras don’t do anything other than record plates that go by,” Winquist explained. “This is no different than an officer sitting on a corner with a notepad and pen writing down the date and time and plate of a vehicle that passes.”

But the ACLU claims recent online posts suggest otherwise.

“In the short period of time that the Cranston surveillance cameras have been operational, there have been almost 1,100 ‘hits,’ and police have conducted almost 2,000 searches of the system,” the ACLU said. “Further, those cameras have taken photographs of more than two million vehicles in that time, information that will be accessible for police searches for 30 days.”

The ACLU argues the license plate readers are also an invasion of privacy for innocent motorists.

“To suggest that such surveillance technology is only a threat to those committing crimes is dismissive of the legitimate privacy concerns that all residents have, and particularly ignores how police surveillance over the decades has often targeted communities in a discriminatory manner,” the ACLU wrote.

In the letter, the ACLU urged the city councils to enact ordinances that prohibit the use of the cameras and “promote community engagement, oversight and extensive transparency for the implementation of any future law enforcement surveillance technology.”

At this time, the ACLU claims the Cranston City Council is the only community that plans to meet and discuss the use of the license plate readers. That meeting is scheduled for Sept. 13.

It’s unclear at this time whether Pawtucket or Woonsocket plan to do the same.

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