WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — After months of discussions, Warwick city councilors decided Monday to approve an ordinance regulating the use of license plate readers in the city.
Warwick will purchase 10 of the cameras and join a network of hundreds of these devices around the state, according to City Council President Stephen McAllister.
The cameras, owned by the company Flock Safety, have created some controversy in Rhode Island since the first ones went up in Cranston last August. The devices take photos of vehicles that pass by and can alert police if a certain license plate is detected.
McAllister assured the ordinance passed by the city council “provides safeguards on how this data can be used.”
“When we investigate crimes, police go to people’s houses, businesses, they check their surveillance footage, their Ring doorbell cameras. This is just like that,” Mayor Frank Picozzi said Tuesday.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Rhode Island released a statement to 12 News expressing concern with the city’s plans.
“The decision of the Warwick City Council and the Warwick Police Department to move forward with their implementation of a Flock Safety surveillance camera program – in spite of the concerns of many community members – undercuts values of transparency and accountability and places the privacy and civil liberties of all Warwick residents at stake,” the ACLU wrote. “Community safety is a laudable and important goal that we all mutually share, but the idea that the only way to achieve it is through constant and expansive surveillance, with no meaningful limitations on its scope, is simply and unequivocally false.”
Picozzi refuted that, saying the cameras won’t be used to surveil residents.
”We’re not looking for average, ordinary citizens that aren’t committing crimes,” the mayor said. “If they’re tracking you through Flock cameras, you’ve done something wrong or they think you’ve done something wrong.”
Law enforcement officials say the cameras are an effective crime-fighting tool. According to McAllister, the cameras have helped solve several cases in Cranston over the past few weeks, including a house break, stolen cars, and catalytic converter thefts.
“If we develop some information about car data, we can input that into the system and actually develop leads based on the license plates that come back,” Deputy Police Chief Michael Lima explained.
The city is entering a two-year contract with Flock and the cameras will cost roughly $52,000 to buy and implement, but Lima said residents won’t have to foot the bill.
“It’s federal asset forfeiture money, so there’s no taxpayer dollars paying for this,” he said. “It’s when we get money in from drug seizures or whatnot. We’re using that money to reinvest back into the community.”
There were 29 cameras installed in Cranston as of last month, and another two dozen are now online in Providence.