WOONSOCKET – The Woonsocket Police Department has seen early success apprehending wanted individuals with the use of its new Flock Safety surveillance cameras, including a 14-year-old boy accused of running away from home in a stolen vehicle.
Chief Thomas Oates said on Tuesday the department has so far arrested four individuals and recovered three pieces of stolen property based on hits from the surveillance cameras. Those include two individuals charged with possession of a stolen vehicle, one accused of stealing a trailer, and a fourth wanted on an arrest warrant.
In all of those instances, Oates said, the cameras identified a vehicle that was listed on one of the state or federal “hot lists” for vehicles associated with crime. The hit triggered an alert to the Woonsocket Police Department, which dispatched an officer to apprehend the individual.
In the case of one of the stolen vehicles, he said, officers responded to the Cumberland Farms on South Main Street after a nearby camera registered a hit for a vehicle reported stolen out of Lincoln. After setting up a surveillance position, he said, officers approached the vehicle’s driver while he was attempting to refill the vehicle with gas. The individual fled on foot, but officers apprehended him a short time later.
The driver, as it turned out, was a 14-year-old boy who had run away from home in Central Falls.
“Lord knows what could’ve happened later on that evening with the fact that you’ve got a 14-year-old who was out and about with a stolen vehicle,” he said.
In another instance, Capt. John Picard pulled over a vehicle near Bernon Street after it registered a hit on a nearby camera. The driver was arrested and charged with possession of a stolen vehicle.
While the department also has the ability to enter their own wanted vehicles into the system or search the previous month’s data, Oates said all of the arrests so far have stemmed from alerts from state or federal databases.
“We have that ability to put that into the system, so that that would flag the system if the vehicle goes by. We have not had that happen yet,” he said.
While the technology has already netted four arrests, Oates said the department has not yet officially begun the 60-day trial period provided free of charge by Flock Safety, a Georgia-based surveillance technology company. That’s because of the 13 cameras expected to go online around the city, only 10 have been activated so far.
“One of the problems that they’re having is they’re having problems getting chips for some of these cameras. So they rolled out a couple of them at one point, and they’ve been adding them as they go,” Oates said.
The city, he said, began using the cameras in August. Once all of the cameras go online, he said, the trial period will begin.
In the meantime, residents can track the cameras’ progress on the company’s transparency portal at www.transparency.flocksafety.com/woonsocket-ri-pd. The online portal offers general information about the cameras’ use, including the number of hot list hits over the previous 30 days and which departments have access to Woonsocket’s data.
According to the Woonsocket transparency portal, the city’s cameras had detected a total of 179,843 vehicles over the previous 30 days as of Tuesday, including 867 that registered as hot list hits. The department conducted 43 searches of its Flock Safety data during that time, though Oates warned the system is highly sensitive to any changes in search parameters, making the number of actual searches appear higher than the number of search sessions conducted by officers.
Holly Beilin, content and communications coordinator for Flock Safety, said the transparency portal is intended to allow more police accountability and transparency to constituents. The feature, she said, is not required but is free to all customers.
“All three of the agencies in Rhode Island – Cranston, Woonsocket and Pawtucket – have all enabled the transparency feature,” she said.
The departments have faced criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union along with some public officials in Rhode Island for their use of the cameras. Among other concerns, the ACLU cited the cameras’ ability to store detailed vehicle information and the lack of a public feedback or notice period prior to their installation.
Beilin said the cameras take a still image of every vehicle that passes by and store that information for 30 days. Departments are able to search the information for up to a month, when the data is automatically deleted.
The cameras, she said, do not have the capacity to register a vehicle’s speed.
“Flock helps with proactive and reactive crime fighting. The proactive is the hot list stuff,” she said. “Reactively, Flock offers objective evidence. If a crime happens, a license plate and vehicle, that’s the most actionable evidence that a police officer can have sometimes.”
The data can also be used by other organizations that receive access from the Woonsocket Police Department. According to the transparency portal, those organizations include police departments in Cranston and Pawtucket as well as Fall River and Quincy, Mass.
Oates said data from Woonsocket’s cameras was also used to help track the whereabouts of two suspects who were arrested in Warwick following a series of violent assaults in August.
In Pawtucket, the cameras have been used to locate six stolen vehicles. In Cranston, they were responsible for the recovery of 14 stolen vehicles and 27 arrests through Sept. 28.
While the city has not yet committed to keeping the cameras following the trial period, Oates had positive words for their early success.
“How do you put a value on being able to apprehend that 14-year-old boy before he maybe got in a crash with that vehicle?” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, just the one, if it prevented him from getting in a serious crash or something along those lines, how do you put a dollar figure on that?”