3 RI police departments testing license plate recognition cameras

West Bay

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Three Rhode Island police departments will soon start testing out technology they say will help them more efficiently and effectively respond to and investigate criminal activity.

Cranston Police Chief Michael Winquist, Pawtucket Police Chief Tina Goncalves and Woonsocket Police Chief Thomas Oates held a joint news conference Wednesday to announce their departments are taking part in a 60-day trial program involving the use of automated license plate recognition cameras.

The cameras provided by Flock Safety have already been installed in “strategic areas” around the three cities, according to Winquist. He said 29 of the cameras are in Cranston, while 17 are in Pawtucket and 13 are in Woonsocket, all on city-owned property.

Winquist said the cameras capture still images of rear license plates and can alert police when a wanted or stolen vehicle drives by, allowing officers to react. He said the cameras don’t record video.

“These cameras don’t do anything other than record plates that go by. 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,” Winquist said.

“One of the concerns was that they have facial recognition technology,” he added. “They do not record people or faces, they focus specifically on vehicles.”

Winquist assured the cameras won’t be used for traffic enforcement since they can’t track speed or identify unregistered or uninsured vehicles.

In addition to criminal investigations, the cameras will also be used to help track down missing persons, including the subjects of Amber and Silver alerts.

Watch: Full news conference (story continues below)

When a plate is captured, the system doesn’t automatically provide vehicle owner information, Winquist said. If one gets flagged by the system, an officer or dispatcher must then verify it’s associated with criminal activity.

“Unless there’s an alert or a reason for us to run the plate, we won’t be running the plate,” he said.

“One advantage that these cameras do have: if a vehicle passes by one of our cameras that does not have a license plate on it at all, we will be alerted in real time. That includes dirt bikes and ATVs,” Winquist added. “As you know, we’ve had some serious public safety concerns with those types of vehicles.”

Winquist said each department is now training officers on how to use the system, as well as drafting policies and creating online transparency portals to provide the public with information about the cameras and their usage.

The exact locations, however, will not be released.

“We want this to be a deterrent for criminals coming into our city, and we believe if we broadcast the location, there’s an opportunity to circumvent them,” Winquist said, adding that the current locations may not be permanent anyway.

The data collected will not be used for anything outside of law enforcement, according to Winquist, and all plate images will be purged after 30 days, with the exception of those identified as evidence in a criminal investigation.

“If you’re a law-abiding citizen, you’ll have no problems, I think, with these cameras,” he said. “I think we’ll keep you safer, and they’ve been used with great success across the country.”

“If you’re a criminal, be warned,” Winquist continued. “If you come into one of our cities, these cameras will let us know as soon as you arrive and we will intercept you.”

Following the announcement, the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a statement criticizing the installation of the cameras, saying they believe the public should’ve had a say in the matter beforehand.

“The installation of surveillance tools that directly impact the privacy of Rhode Island residents and others driving through the communities where they are installed is disturbing in itself,” the statement read. “But the clandestine nature by which the cameras were placed, and the failure of the three cities in which the trial implementation of this tool is known to be happening to seek any advance public input, only make this action more concerning.”

“Further, the implication that only those residents who have committed crimes need to worry about these technologies is inappropriately dismissive of the secrecy with which these programs commenced and the persistent invasion of privacy that these cameras can pose to everyone,” the statement continued.

The ACLU went on to urge the departments to reject the use of the cameras beyond the pilot program.

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