PAWTUCKET – Some city leaders are joining the ACLU of Rhode Island in criticizing the city’s new 17-camera monitoring system to catch criminals.

City Councilor Terry Mercer said during last week’s council meeting that he found rare agreement with the ACLU on this topic, saying he doesn’t see the need for it. Mercer said there should have been better discussion on the pilot initiative to begin with, and he’s not in favor of it continuing past a 60-day probationary period. Mercer said he agrees that this is a bad idea and an infringement on basic rights.

Council President David Moran also expressed concern that the council wasn’t consulted before the program was put in place.

Hannah Stern, representing the ACLU, urged the council to put a halt to the program through ordinance, saying members should also include wording to ensure that no such technology is used again through a unilateral decision of police.

This issue demands community input and transparency, she said, and neither took place.

The major concern, said Stern, is that this is a “massive invasion of privacy for all residents,” as the cameras can be used to track the whereabouts of citizens. There should have been public input, community oversight, and especially public notice, she said, and all were “glaringly lacking from this process.”

Stern said officials often imply a false choice between public safety and privacy, when in fact there are “community-based tools that directly invest in residents” that have never resulted in “24/7 indiscriminate surveillance.”

Chief of Police Tina Goncalves issued a statement in response this week.

“We as a department are hoping to use this trial to understand state-of-the-art law enforcement technology and how applicable it would be here in Pawtucket,” she said. “When a vehicle is present in a public space, the registration and plates are available for officers to monitor and run, but this technology brings a new tool for our department to use when officers cannot be present in all areas in order to identify vehicles related to crimes.”

Police, she said, “will continue to monitor and audit the system to ensure proper usage. As a department, we have an obligation to protect this community and increase public safety. With these cameras, and through the trial with Flock Safety, we have the opportunity to try the newest in public safety tools and experience cutting edge law enforcement design.”

The Breeze reported last week on how the new system from Flock Safety had been used to locate a pair of stolen vehicles and arrest those who stole them.

Representatives from Flock Safety this week were promoting the fact that suspects were also apprehended in a spree of crimes in Cranston and other area communities.

The company is also promoting the fact that the license plate-reading cameras have resulted in the recovery of stolen vehicles, including 10 in Cranston. In total, Cranston has installed 30 Flock Safety cameras on public property, compared to 17 such cameras in Pawtucket and 13 in Woonsocket.

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According to the company, Flock Safety cameras capture license plates and vehicle characteristics, not people or faces, and send real-time alerts to law enforcement when a stolen car, known wanted suspect from a state or national crime database, or vehicle associated with a missing person is detected. The Flock Safety system is in use in more than 1,200 cities across 40 states, and the company works with more than 1,000 police departments. The system has been shown to reduce crime by 70 percent, according to the company.

In a news release last week, the ACLU called on councils in the three communities to direct their police departments to halt use of the cameras, arguing that:

• The cameras, contrary to the impression given by police officials, capture far more information than merely license plate numbers, and can even search for cars by their bumper stickers.

• The inevitability of the expansion of these camera programs into more extensive and intrusive types of surveillance only compounds the seriousness of a lack of statutory safeguards surrounding their usage.

• And in the absence of legislatively established limits on the use of the cameras, the privacy rights of the public remain at the absolute discretion of the police department and a private company, which can change their privacy guidelines at any time.

Though police have suggested that the alert process is triggered almost solely by motor vehicles associated with criminal activity and that innocent motorists therefore have nothing to fear, information posted online indicates that in the short period of time that the Cranston surveillance cameras have been operational, there have been almost 1,100 “hits,” states the ACLU, and police have conducted nearly 2,000 searches of the system. Further, those cameras have taken photos of more than 2 million vehicles in that time, information that will be accessible for police searches for 30 days.

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