What the Flock?

Traffic ‘safety cameras’ recorded 162,180 plates in Johnston over the past 30 days

POLICE CHIEF: Cameras lead to at least four arrests


Have you driven on Hartford Avenue recently?

If so, your license plate was likely one of 162,180 vehicles detected in the last 30 days by one of three Flock Safety cameras monitoring traffic in Johnston.

There’s two more cameras in town, and all three are on the lookout for “hotlist” vehicles.

On the evening of March 12, Johnston Police dispatch “advised patrol units of a flock hit” in the area of Hartford Avenue and City View Parkway.

A “flock hit” refers to a triggered response signal sent from a Flock Safety traffic camera in town.

The cameras record the license plate information from passing vehicles and, according to the company, cannot identify people by gender or race, or utilize facial recognition. And according to local law enforcement, the cameras will only detect and store license plate data and general vehicle descriptions for 30 days.

The eyes in the sky, however, are part of a growing network of police-monitored cameras spread across the Ocean State.

Step Into The Portal

The Johnston Police Department (JPD) “uses Flock Safety technology to capture objective evidence without compromising on individual privacy,” according to a statement at the top of the department’s “Transparency Portal.”

“In addition to the statistics provided by the Flock Safety Transparency Portal, this current year, I am aware of four Johnston Police Department arrests where Johnston Flock cameras assisted with the criminal investigations leading to arrest,” recalled Johnston Police Chief Mark A. Vieira. “Two of the arrests were for stolen vehicles and two for vandalism offenses.”

According to the online portal, Johnston police can “retroactive search to solve crimes after they've occurred.” The department also “utilizes real-time alerting of hotlist vehicles to capture wanted criminals.”

Johnston police have provided a link to the “Flock Safety Transparency Portal” on their department website homepage.

The Guardrails

“In an effort to ensure proper usage and guardrails are in place,” Johnston police made a list of “policies and usage statistics available to the public,” according to Flock Safety.

The publicly available list includes (as of Tuesday, March 19) the length of time data is stored (30 days), number of cameras owned (three), number of vehicles detected over the past month (162,180) and the hotlists that trigger an alert —the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), the National Crime and Information Center database (NCIC), and Amber Alerts.

“The Flock Camera system also has the ability to compare the digital images of license plates against a ‘hot list’ which is a list compiled of vehicles of interest to law enforcement,” Vieira explained. “These vehicles of Interest include stolen vehicles, vehicles involved in crimes, vehicles displaying stolen license plates, and also vehicles associated with missing, abducted, or wanted persons.”

According to the portal, all “hotlist hits are required to be human verified prior to action.” The department has agreed not to use the cameras to aid in “immigration enforcement, traffic enforcement, harassment or intimidation, usage based solely on a protected class (i.e. race, sex, religion), (or) personal use.”

Vieira described some of the system’s limitations.

“These automatic license plate readers capture still-images focused on the license plates and the rear of vehicles as they travel on public roadways,” Vieira said. “Some vehicle characteristics also captured by these cameras can include roof racks, bumper stickers, along with the vehicles make, model and color.”

Flock cameras are typically installed along busy traffic arteries and their exact locations are rarely disclosed.

The Resolution

Johnston Town Council approved a resolution on June 12, 2023, authorizing the JPD to buy three “Automated License Plate Readers from Flock Safety.”

The budget quote for a 36-month contract and purchase of three “Flock Safety Falcon Flex” cameras was estimated at $27,450. They’re solar-charged and each camera can “capture two lanes of traffic simultaneously” and “up to 30,000 vehicles per day,” according to the Flock Safety product description.

At the time of the request, Vieira said that the cameras would “be placed strategically by the roadside in our town.”

“The cameras interface with a web-based program allowing our investigators to determine if suspect vehicles are in or have passed through our town,” Vieira wrote in a memo that was provided to Town Council before they cast their votes. “They are part of larger network of cameras in adjoining communities such as Providence and Cranston.”

Cities like Warwick have also installed similar camera networks.

“These license plate readers serve as an investigative tool for law enforcement as vehicle data and license plates are the most requested pieces of evidence when law enforcement investigates crime,” Vieira explained earlier this week. “The installation of Flock cameras in Johnston began in October of 2023 and became operational around that time.”

“I’m a very big proponent of them,” said Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena Jr. “Anything that helps our police officers solve crimes and makes their jobs safer, I’m all for.”

Modern Crime-Fighting

“A vehicle is used in the commission of 7 out of 10 crimes and 60% of stolen vehicles end up being associated with additional crimes,” according to Vieira. “Police can use the time and location of a crime to obtain time-stamped data on a suspect vehicle from the Flock camera system.”

On March 12, according to the arrest report, Johnston Police dispatch informed Patrolman Matthew D. Murphy that a stolen 2021 Toyota Camry with Maine plates was detected traveling west on Hartford Avenue.

Murphy and other officers arrived on the scene, but were unable to locate the vehicle. They searched for the car in the surrounding neighborhoods and located it nearby on Ivanhoe Street. No one was inside.

Police eventually spoke to Matthew S. Breton, 33, of 12 Wilson Ave., Johnston, and according to the arrest report, he “spontaneously uttered” that he was renting the vehicle from Enterprise. He admitted to driving the car and arriving home recently. He also allegedly told police he was “behind on his payments to Enterprise.”

“Based on (Breton’s) statements,” he was arrested, searched and secured in the back of a patrol cruiser. The vehicle was towed from the scene. According to Johnston Police, Breton was charged with Possession of a Stolen Vehicle, a felony (his first offense).

When customers fail to pay car rental agencies, the agency can report the rented vehicle to police as stolen.

“Data is used for law enforcement purposes only,” according to the department’s “Acceptable Use Policy.” “Data is owned by (the JPD) and is never sold to 3rd parties.”

“The Police Department owns the camera data and may only access and use the system for legitimate law enforcement purposes when the data relates to a specific criminal investigation,” Vieira confirmed.

Besides the stolen Toyota Camry earlier this month, the portal reports 185 other “hotlist hits” and 125 data searches in the last 30 days (as of Tuesday).

“The flock technology is able to flag these vehicles and send an instant alert to law enforcement,” Vieira said. “So, if a vehicle on a national ‘hot list’ enters our community and drives past a flock camera, the Johnston Police Department would receive a real-time instant alert.”

Johnston RI PD

Flock Safety

Transparency Portal

Last Updated: Tuesday, March 19

  • What's Detected: License Plates, Vehicles
  • What's Not Detected: Facial recognition, People, Gender, Race
  • Acceptable Use Policy: Data is used for law enforcement purposes only. Data is owned by Johnston RI PD and is never sold to 3rd parties.
  • Prohibited Uses: Immigration enforcement, traffic enforcement, harassment or intimidation, usage based solely on a protected class (i.e. race, sex, religion), Personal use.
  • Access Policy: All system access requires a valid reason and is stored indefinitely.
  • Hotlist Policy: Hotlist hits are required to be human-verified prior to action.
  • Data retention (in days): 30 days
  • Number of owned cameras: 3
  • Hotlists Alerted On: NCIC, NCMEC Amber Alert
  • Vehicles detected in the last 30 days: 162,180
  • Hotlist hits in the last 30 days: 186
  • Searches in the last 30 days: 125


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