A proposal that would allow the Warwick Police Department to lease 10 Flock Safety Automatic License Plate Readers was held until May 16 during the City Council meeting last Wednesday after concerns …
A proposal that would allow the Warwick Police Department to lease 10 Flock Safety Automatic License Plate Readers was held until May 16 during the City Council meeting last Wednesday after concerns were brought up by both members of the Council and the public.
Highway Chief Rick Gallant said he was at the meeting and was surprised that multiple people opposed the cameras.
Gallant in an interview Monday explained that his 23-year-old son, Christopher was driven off the road while riding his motorcycle on Jefferson Blvd as part of a road rage incident.
Gallant’s son was left with a broken eye socket, a broken hip, four broken bones in his leg and a broken wrist.
“The car that did this basically left him for dead,” said Gallant.
After canvassing different places near the incident, Gallant said police were able to gather footage from security cameras to get a description of the vehicle but the license plate itself was never identified. To this day police still haven’t identified the driver.
“If we had plate readers in the city we would’ve likely caught the person,” said Gallant. Col. Bradford Connor told the Council that there are approximately 60 other Flock cameras across the state including in Woonsocket, Cranston and Pawtucket. He said that other law enforcement agencies are also planning on acquiring cameras in 2022.
“The Flock Safety ALPR is not your traditional live feed camera, rather it is a device that records and stores data. The technology captures still photographs of license plates and vehicle characteristics as they travel on public roads,” Connor explained in a memo to the Council.
“The cameras do not independently record people or faces but can be used to solve and reduce violent and property crimes. The cameras will never be used for traffic enforcement, as they cannot track speed or identify unregistered or uninsured vehicles. They capture objective evidence in plain sight, such as license plates, and can never be used for facial recognition.”
In the memo to the Council Connor said that while the cameras “do not result in unwarranted invasion of one’s privacy, they capture more than just license plates.
“They allow investigators to search footage by vehicle type, make, color and other unique attributes; identify the state of a license plate; and capture temporary plates, paper plates, and vehicles without plates,” the memo reads. “ They are able to cover two lanes of traffic and vehicles traveling up to 100 mph. Investigators are also able to input vehicle data into the system and receive a ‘HIT’ and alert within seconds of a camera detecting that vehicle. The cities of Cranston and Pawtucket have shared their data and success stories with us. In the short time that they have used Flock Safety they have seen arrests increase significantly and have had a record number of recovered stolen property. Just as important, it has been used to locate missing and endangered people.”
Ward 1 Councilman Bill Foley said he first talked to Connor about it in the summer when a camera in Cranston was installed on the line between Warwick and Cranston in Pawtuxet Village.
The camera was installed in the wrong location and caused concern.
“I’m not making any allegations but my concern is are there any lawsuits currently against this technology because it does for 30 days store information on random people who have committed no crimes,” Foley asked.
Connor said he knows of no legal successes against the system.
As part of the proposal Connor was requesting that they don’t go through the normal bidding process.
“The exception to the bid requirement is requested because Flock Safety cameras are currently the only system of its kind being used in Rhode Island,” Connor wrote in a memo.
Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix questioned if Flock is actually the sole source provider. Rix said he understood the argument that there aren’t any other competitors in Rhode Island with the contract. However, he still argued that it should go through the normal bidding process.
“However, I think that this should go through the normal bidding process because even if competitors don’t have contracts with municipalities in Rhode island right now I don’t believe that should prevent us from seeking bids from other providers with ALPR cameras, learning about the different systems and being able to compare whether it’s an apples to apples comparison or learning more about the different offers, the different prices,” said Rix.
Craig Lynch a representative from Flock said that the technology that Flok has makes them a sole source provider although other companies are able to use license plate readers.
“We are a sole sourced provider. We can do what no other LPR company can do,” said Lynch.
Rix said that he still didn’t think that it fell into a sole source provider category.
“It would be my position that if the city bid is in relation to ALPR technology then a 56.6 would not be appropriate as competitors also use ALPR technology and those competitors may likewise have claims that they could be considered a sole source provider based on what makes their company unique,” said Rix.
Rix said that the bidding process would be most appropriate.
It was noted by Connor that the department looked at different options including ones that are mounted onto police vehicles and could be used for different functions like patrolling parking lots for unregistered vehicles.
“We felt that was more intrusive,” said Connor.
ACLU responds Ahead of the Council meeting Steven Brown the executive director for the Rhode Island ACLU along with policy associate Hannah Stern wrote a letter to the Council urging the Council to reject the proposal.
“While the ACLU of Rhode Island certainly understands the importance of public safety, the approach to safer communities cannot and should not include the usage of technologies – like these cameras – which raise serious privacy issues, carry the clear potential for expanded surveillance, and could be implemented with absolutely no statutory safeguards in place,” the letter read. “ We urge you to reject the use of the cameras and to adopt an ordinance that will set standards for the deployment of any future law enforcement surveillance technology.”
The ACLU also argued that the cameras can be used for more functions in the future.
It is almost inevitable that the use of these cameras will expand over time to engage in more, and more intrusive, types of surveillance.
The history of surveillance technology in this country – from wiretaps to stingrays to cameras to drones – has been a history of ever-growing uses, and those expanded uses are then used to justify and normalize even greater intrusions on privacy. Indeed, just this argument has been made in attempting to dismiss privacy concerns associated with the installation of these cameras by noting the prevalence of camera surveillance in other contexts. This is how our expectations of privacy become minimized and more Orwellian.
Flock Safety’s cameras exemplify this “mission creep.” Just a few months ago, the company announced the availability of “advanced search” features for its camera systems that will:
- Allow police to upload a picture of a vehicle from any source and then perform a search to see if any of the cameras have seen it;
- Allow police to enter a license plate number, and then search cameras to find vehicles that frequently travel with that vehicle, to “help identify accomplices to crimes”; and give police the ability to search for vehicles that have been in multiple specified locations recently.
“Even if not being used in these more expansive ways today, the potential capabilities of this program are not as narrow as simply identifying and cross-checking license plate numbers, and nothing prevents expanded uses in the future,” the letter read. “The chilling effects of the ability to track individuals in all these manners cannot be understated.”
The ACLU also called on the Council to pass an ordinance regarding the technology.
“While the above are detailed concerns directly related to Flock Safety’s cameras and the specific implementation of them in your municipality, we wish to emphasize that all surveillance technology has the capability to encourage, intentionally or not, more aggressive and unduly invasive policing and foster community distrust in policing systems,” the letter read.
“We call upon the City Council to reject the proposal to implement Flock Safety cameras in Warwick and to further enact an ordinance that promotes community engagement, oversight, and extensive transparency for any future potential law enforcement surveillance technology.”
Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi said that concerns about the scope of the cameras and the data could be addressed through an ordinance.
Sinappi said that he would draft an ordinance with the help of the Administration if the bid is approved.
Ward 4 Councilman James McElroy asked if the data collected would be a public record. Connor explained that through the software the department wouldn’t have the ability to run a report and give out the data.
McElroy then asked Connor if he knows for sure if the state law says it is or is not a public record.
“I can’t answer that at this point,” said Connor. During public comment Warwick resident Marc Genest, a professor at the U.S. Navy War College who among other things was a U.S. advisor in Afghanistan said that he focuses on information warfare and said he was concerned about the proposal.
“I’ve been dealing with this area for a long period of time. One of the things that really bothers me and that frightens me is the term intended,” said Genest.
Genest said that he has been to many totorian countries who use the type of technology proposed in Warwick to “control, to surveil and to deny people their basic civil liberties.”
“I know these are small steps but with small steps come bigger steps and you have got to look at the long-term consequence of this,” said Genest. “You are literally sacrificing the civil liberties of your residents for just a tiny, tiny bit more security.”
Genest also noted that nothing is unhackable.
“This is not something that is invincible, do not let them sell you a bill of goods and let them use scare tactics talking to you about security when in reality it’s about making money,” said Genest.
When asked for comment last week Mayor Frank Picozzi said “I respect the Council’s decision as I always do.”
With that said Picozi said making an ordinance for police department procedure is something he wouldn’t do.
“I have full faith in the police department,” said Picozzi.
Like he said before the meeting Picozzi said that he is in support of the cameras.
“It’s just a fantastic law enforcement tool, it’s something we need,” said Picozzi
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