PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — On the night of Feb. 14, Zacory Richardson was crossing North Main Street rolling a suitcase of items belonging to his mother, who had just died.

Shortly before 10 p.m., a black sedan hit Richardson, sending him into the air. The car took off, according to a police report, leaving Richardson in the roadway. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Police said there were few clues left behind by the vehicle. But there was a camera from the company Flock Safety installed at the intersection where the crash happened.

The camera, activated by Providence Police just months earlier, captured a still image of the car hitting Richardson, according to Police Commander Kevin Lanni.

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Detectives ran the plate and identified the suspected driver as 34-year-old Alisha Pina of Lincoln, who voluntarily came to the police department to be charged two days later. She is now facing a felony charge of leaving the scene of a crash resulting in death.

“If not for the cameras, we would not have apprehended the suspect,” Lanni said in an interview with Target 12.

Providence police officials said the cameras have been used in dozens of arrests so far — including to track down a murder suspect this past weekend — and Mayor Brett Smiley supports the technology.

But civil rights advocates and some state and local leaders are worried about government overreach with technology that has the power to track people’s movements throughout the city.

The concerns have grown as more Rhode Island cities and towns sign up to install cameras, and Providence plans to add 60 more cameras this year.

How the cameras work

The 25 cameras in Providence were installed throughout the city last year, sparking controversy amid a lack of public process.

City leaders under former Mayor Jorge Elorza struck a deal to get the cameras for free for one year, paid for by the company Axon as part of a study. The city never held a public hearing about the matter, and the program didn’t require City Council approval. (Many city councilors said they first heard about the program when the ACLU of Rhode Island sent a letter urging them to reject it.)

The city solicited written comments about the policy governing the cameras over the summer, and then turned them on Sept. 1.

The cameras take a photo of every car on the road, not just ones suspected of committing a crime. The photos make up a vast searchable database that is saved for 30 days, according to police.

According to Flock’s online transparency portal, Providence’s 25 cameras captured 536,225 vehicles over the past month alone.

The system allows detectives to be both proactive and reactive; they can search for license plates in the database to see where a car has been, or they can put a plate on a “hot list.”

“And if that car hits on one of our license plate readers we’ll get alerted right away,” said Lt. Dennis O’Brien, one of the 47 Providence officers with access to the system.

Photos of a 12 News SUV captured by the Flock system

At a recent visit to police headquarters to see how the system works, O’Brien demonstrated for Target 12 by entering the license plate of a 12 News vehicle. The system took two photos of the SUV while a reporter and photographer were on the way to the police department that morning.

Eleven photos of that vehicle had been captured over the past month, as Target 12 gathered reports in the city.

If detectives don’t know the license plate number they’re looking for, they can filter the massive database of photos based on make, model, color, the state of the license plate, or even bumper stickers and roof racks.

Police departments can also share access to their photos with other law enforcement agencies, and Providence detectives can likewise see when a vehicle they’re looking for is captured by a camera in another city.

The majority of crimes committed involve someone with a vehicle, according to Col. Oscar Perez, the Providence police chief. He said it makes the system a key “tool in the toolbox” for 21st-century policing.

“When incidents like that happen around the city that shock the conscience, the community expects the police department to act,” Perez said. “It’s been very beneficial to us.”

Civil rights concerns

The ACLU of Rhode Island has been one of the biggest critics of the technology, arguing the capabilities of the cameras and the security of the data collected by a private company is murky.

“It’s a huge concern that there’s a huge database of all of this information that’s just going straight to the police, that’s being shared with other departments, even with other states,” said Hannah Stern with the ACLU of Rhode lsland. She’s been working on legislation to limit the use of the cameras.

“They don’t need to know when I’m coming and going to work every day,” Stern said. “And they don’t need to know when I’m going to the grocery store.”

The cameras do allow police to track someone’s daily patterns through photos of their vehicle, which will likely only become easier when 60 more cameras are installed.

But Providence police said they have strict protocols in place to make sure the technology is only being used in criminal investigations, not personal scavenger hunts.

The 47 out of more than 400 Providence police officers with access to the system are either detectives or on the command staff. A monthly audit is done to make sure each search has a valid reason.

“We find out who used it, what was the purpose they used it for, and what was done with it,” Perez said.

Perez said the cameras are incapable of discriminating by race or gender, as they don’t use facial recognition.

“No one has an expectation of privacy driving down the road with their car,” Lanni added.

Amid concerns from City Council members last year, police also added to its policy that monthly reports on the cameras would be provided to the City Council for the first year.

But when Target 12 asked in April for copies of all the monthly reports, a council spokesperson said there had been just one report submitted, representing the time period from Dec. 1 to Feb. 28.

The four-sentence letter said “the department investigated and/or assisted in 51 cases during this time period. A total of 149 plates or partial plates were searched. The system generated 881 hits on the searches.”

Council President Rachel Miller called the report “very short and a little opaque,” and told Target 12 she has now asked police to start providing the monthly reports.

She also said she’s planning to work with the police department and Smiley to come up with “appropriate safeguards” for the cameras’ use.

“It is a broad amount of surveillance that is available to local government,” Miller said. “I continue to have civil liberty concerns.”

There is currently no state law or Providence city ordinance regulating how the cameras can be used.

Smiley is all-in on the cameras, praising the technology on Monday after police used it to track a homicide suspect on Sunday.

“This was an excellent response, a fast response, it was good detective work,” Smiley said at a news conference. “It employed the use of technology that we’re pleased to have at our disposal here in Providence.”

Smiley included in his budget proposal one year of funding for the three-year, $480,000 contract for 60 new cameras, which are set to be installed this year. A date has not been set. (It’s not yet clear if the original 25 cameras, which are being provided for free as part of a study, will remain in place after the first year is over.)

The contract was approved by the Board of Contract and Supply in October, but did not have to receive council approval since it is worth less than $500,000.

The ACLU and Black Lives Matter PAC raised additional concerns about the cameras after Smiley said last month the cameras would be used to crack down on illegal ATV and dirt bike use.

“That’s a huge overreach of that technology,” Stern argued. “Using this huge database that’s encroaching on everyone’s privacy is not the way we should be addressing minor offenses.”

“If you’re not putting safeguards on this type of very expansive surveillance technology, it is inevitably going to be used for more and more things,” she added.

Providence police said the ability to track ATVs with Flock is limited, since the unregistered vehicles don’t have license plates that detectives can search. But the cameras still take a still image of the vehicles, which can be seen in the database.

“We’re trying to utilize the system to at least see where the ATVs are visiting our city the most, so we can help deploy resources in that area to try and capture the illegal riders,” Lanni said.

Where are the cameras?

Flock repeatedly declined to provide Target 12 with a full list of Rhode Island communities that have installed their cameras, citing company policy.

Target 12 has confirmed that at least six municipalities are currently using the cameras: Cranston, Glocester, Providence, Smithfield, Warwick and Woonsocket, while East Providence is preparing to install them soon. (Tiverton also reportedly has two cameras, but did not respond to Target 12’s requests for comment.)

Police in Johnston, Newport, North Kingstown, South Kingstown and Narragansett confirmed they are exploring getting the technology.

Some communities, including Pawtucket, have piloted the cameras and then opted not to get them permanently.

Cranston has the most cameras of any municipality, with 29 currently active. Col. Michael, Winquist, the Cranston police chief, said the technology has led to 116 arrests in that city since being installed in August 2021.

The majority of the arrests were for stolen vehicles, at 64, while 35 arrests were for warrants and 17 were for stolen property, Winquist said.

Providence police could not provide a specific number of arrests tied to the cameras in the capital city, but said there have been “dozens.” In addition to the homicide and deadly hit-and-run investigation, the cameras have been used for burglaries, stolen vehicles and missing people, police said.

Some communities are allowing civilian dispatchers to access the camera system in addition to sworn officers.

As an example of how the data is shared, Providence has agreements with seven other other law enforcement agencies, including New York State Police. Cranston shares with ten, according to Flock’s online transparency portal.

Woonsocket police chooses to share with more than 60 agencies, according to the Flock portal.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s an investigative tool,” Woonsocket Chief Thomas Oates said.

The police chiefs are wary of a proposed state law that would limit how they can use the cameras.

State Rep. Joseph Solomon, a Warwick Democrat, has introduced legislation to regulate the cameras, including requirements that that cities and towns hold public hearings before acquiring the technology — even if they are getting them for free.

The bill would limit the cameras’ use to stolen vehicles, missing persons, vehicles that match within the National Crime Information Center, and vehicles involved in an investigation of a violent felony or domestic violence.

Flock opposes the legislation.

“This bill as currently written would disallow law enforcement to use technology to enforce the law,” Flock spokesperson Josh Thomas said.

Solomon said he wants to make clear that the cameras won’t be used for minor offenses like shoplifting or even civil violations. He told the House Judiciary Committee that the legislation was 90% of the way to a compromise with the chiefs, who currently oppose the legislation.

“We maintain that, in general, communities have the right to use the cameras in public places so we are hesitant to support any restrictions for their use,” said Sid Wordell, the executive director of the R.I. Police Chiefs’ Association.

He said the chiefs support requirements for public hearings and audits, but not limits on which types of offenses the cameras can be used to investigate.

“To us, every victim deserves a full investigation,” Winquist said. “We can’t start dissecting which crimes are more important.”

Steph Machado ( is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.

Jacqueline Gomersall contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the number of arrests utilizing the Flock cameras in Cranston.