NEWS

Chief: License plate cameras have 'exceeded expectations'

Concerns remain, but council appears largely satisfied after special session on program

Posted 9/15/21

By DANIEL KITTREDGE The leader of the city's Police Department defended a new automated license plate reader, or ALPR, program during a special meeting of the City Council on Monday, saying its use has already resulted in more than two-dozen arrests and

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NEWS

Chief: License plate cameras have 'exceeded expectations'

Concerns remain, but council appears largely satisfied after special session on program

Posted

The leader of the city’s Police Department defended a new automated license plate reader, or ALPR, program during a special meeting of the City Council on Monday, saying its use has already resulted in more than two-dozen arrests and the recovery of over $300,000 worth of stolen property.

And while some concerns remain – including from the ACLU of Rhode Island, which has called on city lawmakers to pursue an ordinance barring the use of the cameras – council members largely indicated their questions have been answered and expressed support for the new program.

“The system has been very impressive in a short period of time. It’s actually exceeded my expectations,” Col. Michael Winquist told the council.

He added: “As soon as someone comes in our city, if they’re driving motor vehicle and they pass one of these cameras, we’re altered within three seconds. That has led to multiple apprehensions that simply would not have happened if it wasn’t for the system.”

The installation of the cameras, which are made by Georgia-based company Flock Safety, generated attention and some controversy last month after being first revealed publicly through a report from WJAR.

At a subsequent press conference, Cranston Police announced the department’s participation in a 60-day pilot program involving the cameras. Police in Woonsocket and Pawtucket are also taking part in the pilot program.

After the program was revealed, concerns were raised over the both the use of the devices and the manner in which the effort became public knowledge. The ACLU, in particular, has been at the forefront of criticism, warning that the program may lead to more “extensive and intrusive types of surveillance” on the part of law enforcement.

While the cameras were discussed during the council’s regular August meeting, the issue was not formally docketed that night. As a result, Council President Chris Paplauskas said he would schedule a special session on the issue, which was held Monday.

Winquist was joined by Majs. Todd Patalano and Robert Quirk in City Hall’s Council Chambers, sitting alongside Mayor Ken Hopkins and members of the city’s administration. A number of police officers were also on hand, as were former Mayor Allan Fung and his wife, state Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung.

Police had prepared several large display boards to highlight what they say have been the benefits of the camera program to date. Authorities had previously said the cameras played a key role in the apprehension of two suspects in a pair of armed robberies and assaults in Cranston last month. Those suspects, who were taken into custody after a standoff at a Warwick motel, are facing similar charges in Massachusetts and Connecticut as well.

In all, according to the information provided by police, 23 arrests have been made as a result of the new camera program and one warrant has been issued. Winquist on Monday said the number of arrests was actually 27 based on additional people taken into custody over the weekend.

Police also say 12 vehicles, with a combined value of $318,000, have been recovered to date through use of the cameras. Another display board contained images of license plates and vehicles taken from the cameras, along with descriptions of the individual cases.

As of Tuesday morning, an online “transparency portal” on the Cranston camera program (available at transparency.flocksafety.com/cranston-ri-pd) showed the cameras had “detected” 2,429,867 vehicles since being activated last month. Winquist said that figure represents each time a vehicle passes by one of the cameras, meaning one vehicle may be counted multiple times.

The portal indicates that police have conducted 2,338 searches through the program – meaning instances in which license plates captured by the system are cross-referenced against key law enforcement databases known as the “hotlist,” including the FBI-run National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and the Amber Alert system. There have been 1,528 “hotlist” hits thus far, according to the portal.

It was previously indicated that 29 Flock Safety cameras were being installed across the city, although Winquist on Monday said there are 24 cameras currently active and three more being put up, for a total of 27.

He also said the pilot program, which Flock Safety is providing at no cost, will not formally begin until the last of the cameras is installed and activated, meaning the program will ultimately have run several weeks longer than 60 days.

In defending the cameras, Winquist made the case that license plate reading technology is already used by a wide range of companies and agencies in multiple settings – from the Providence Place Mall and Twin River Casino to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. He pushed back against what he described as “a lot of misinformation” on the part of the ACLU and others.

“This is not new technology, the chief said.

Winquist – a former Rhode Island State Police trooper who previously ran that agency’s Fusion Center, which is involved in intelligence gathering and sharing – said the cameras are “something that’s always been in the back of my mind” as a valuable tool for law enforcement. Only more recently, he said, has the technology reached the level of affordability and accuracy to make it a truly viable option.

The partnership with Flock Safety, Winquist said, stemmed from his review of the results from one of the company’s cameras that was placed in Fall River, Massachusetts. He said he was “thoroughly impressed” based on his observations, and that he was subsequently convinced that Flock Safety utilizes “every single safeguard that you could imagine.”

“I felt very comfortable after I saw what they had,” he said. At that point, he said he approached Hopkins and received the mayor’s backing to take part in the pilot program.

In terms of the concerns over the rollout, Winquist said some of the camera installations – all on city property – were completed “sooner than expected.” People noticing the cameras, he said, resulted in the news reports through which many members of the public and elected officials learned of the program.

In response to a question Monday, Winquist said the department would not disclose the precise locations of the cameras, citing the need to avoid giving criminals an advantage. But he said all of the devices are “highly visible” and “evenly distributed” throughout the city.

“There’s no attempt to be covert … These cameras were put up on the middle of daytime, and there was no secrecy to it whatsoever,” he said. “I know there was curiosity, but there was no secrecy to it.”

The use of the data collected by the cameras, and how secure it is, was another key point of discussion Monday.

Winquist said the cameras capture “a still shot, not a video … of the rear of the vehicle, with a focus on the license plate.”

“Yes, it does capture distinctive marks of the vehicle, if you bumper stickers and things like that. It does capture that,” he said.

The images are then uploaded to an encrypted, cloud-based storage system, Winquist said. The system runs cross-references against the “hotlist” databases to alert police if a license plate associated with a criminal investigation has been detected. At that point, officers conduct follow-up checks to verify the hit.

“The only people that have access to that information is members the Cranston Police Department, and only a limited number of people in the Cranston Police Department can search that data,” he said.

The colonel at one point described the policies governing which personnel can use the system, and for what purpose, as “restrictive.”

Winquist also said all of the images and plate numbers are “automatically purged from the system” after 30 days if they have not been associated with a “hotlist” hit.

“It’s not kept for years at a time. We can’t track where you went to the doctor, where you went to the dentist,” he said. “All we know is you went by that camera at a certain date and time.”

He added: “We don’t even know who’s driving the vehicle. It doesn’t have facial recognition. It doesn’t have artificial intelligence. It doesn’t record any indication of the driver who’s driving the car … All it does is simply record the license plate and the rear of the vehicle on a public roadway. That’s all this does. Don’t want to make it any more Big Brother than it is. People are making a bigger deal out of it, I think, than it really needs to be.”

Winquist also defended the program from a legal standpoint, calling it “less intrusive than what an officer can do right now legally.” He said roughly 1,200 police departments nationally already utilize the technology, and asserted the cameras are “100 percent legal” under state and federal law. He also pointed to a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling last year that found the use of similar cameras to track the movements of a suspect in a drug case did not violate the man’s constitutional rights.

“The officers do a great job, but they can’t be everywhere all the time … It’s simple a force multiplier, is what it comes down to,” Winquist said, adding: “This is not something so foreign that we should be alarmed by it.”

In terms of cost, Winquist said continuing the program beyond the free 60-day trial would involve an annual cost of $2,500 per camera. That figure represents an essentially all-inclusive lease with Flock Safety, he said, which would continue to own the cameras and be responsible for any repairs or replacements. The agreement would also cover the associated software costs.

Winquist described that cost as “very reasonable.” He indicated grant funding may be available to cover the costs of continuing the program, and also said he has had preliminary conversations with insurance companies that may be willing to offset the costs due to the system’s success in aiding with stolen property recovery.

Following the chief’s presentation, public comment on the cameras – which were the sole topic on Monday’s agenda – was relatively limited.

Fenton-Fung called the cameras a “tremendous opportunity” for Cranston and said the initiative has her “unequivocal and full support.”

“The colonel and his team showed strong, proactive initiative to complement our already very strong community policing outfit … Leadership involves seeing what we need one to three years in the future, and not just trying to put out the fires of today,” she said.

Resident Peter Rivelli said he believes the cameras will help “keep crime out of Cranston.”

“I think it’s a no-brainer,” he said.

Robert Murray, an attorney who frequently appears before the council on development issues, also spoke in support of the program.

“This is not an invasive intrusion … This is protecting my, my family, my property, my new granddaughter,” he said, adding: “Frankly, with all due respect to the council, I don’t think you should be micromanaging the Police Department on this.”

Others, however, were critical of the program.

Hannah Stern, testifying on behalf of the ACLU, questioned Winquist’s portrayal of the camera system as limited in use and secure in terms of data collection.

“The reality is that these cameras are not just automated license plate readers,” she said, calling “much more advanced than what has been conveyed to the public.”

“The fact that there’s no state law prohibiting their use does not mean it’s the right thing to do,” she said, adding: “This is a massive database. We should all be cautious about this expansive surveillance, not only becoming normalized, but especially with the known discriminatory legacy of police surveillance and technology.”

Stern urged the council to seek an end to the program and adopt an ordinance that “guarantees community engagement and oversight” in terms of any similar program adopted in the future.

In a letter sent to council members ahead of Monday’s meeting,

Heather Burbach, a resident of Edgewood, called the program and its rollout “more than a little distressing.”

She pushed back against Winquist’s invocation of RIDOT’s toll gantry cameras, contrasting the process through which those devices were approved.

“Before those were allowed to go up, there was a lot of notice, there was a lot of comments, there was a lot of input from people, and there was a lot of strict protocols and rules put in place about what could be used, how they were going to be used, and what was absolutely off limits. And that’s what’s absolutely missing here,” she said.

Questioning the legality of the program, Burbach cited a recent Colorado Supreme Court ruling related to the use of surveillance cameras.

“I think we should all be troubled by it and we should stop the use of these immediately,” she said.

Michael Beauregard of the group Cranston Forward also spoke in opposition to the cameras, warning of the potential for the “massive data system” to be breached. He called on officials to ensure there are “clear” protocols in place for such a situation.

During their comments, council members raised some questions but largely expressed support for the cameras.

Ward 2 Councilwoman Aniece German asked about the authority through which the department had adopted the camera program, questioned whether it would create any new concerns over profiling, and asked Winquist whether he would support body-worn cameras for police officers.

Winquist said he would support the use of the body cameras if resources are available for them and any statewide policy governing their use is “appropriate and fair to the police officers.” He also said the cameras are “not capable of profiling” and have been placed in a manner so as to ensure they cover all parts of the city.

Citywide Councilwoman Nicole Renzulli asked about the city’s potential legal liability if a data breach involving the system were to occur. Both Winquist and John Verdecchia, one of the council’s legal advisers, sought to downplay the risks. The chief said there is “no personal identifying information in this database,” which is typically the kind of information that triggers legal notification requirements in the event of a breach.

Renzulli also urged officials to keep residents apprised of any new developments.

“I think that residents that are concerned just want to know more,” she said.

Citywide Councilman Robert Ferri said the fact that many council members found out about the program through the media was “a concern,” but he said Winquist had “clearly answered” his primary question, which related to access and oversight of the data collected through the cameras.

Citywide Councilwoman Jessica Marina spoke of how ubiquitous cameras are being coming across society, from homes and businesses to motor vehicles. She said she was glad to hear of the program’s positive early results.

“They’re more apparent than people realize … Criminals are taking advantage of technology as well,” she said.

Paplauskas struck a similar note, telling Winquist: “I’m glad to see you have the tools that you need to keep the city safe.”

Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan spoke highly of the Police Department – “I think you’re the best in the state” – and said he does not view the future costs of continuing the camera program, as being “particularly egregious” given the potential benefits.

Donegan also echoed Ferri’s comments in terms of the concerns council members had regarding learning of the program through the media, given that many constituents reached out seeking answers.

But he added: “I think, speaking personally, a lot of the confusion and questions that we had … were answered this evening.”

Ward 6 Councilman Matt Reilly, during his comments, was sharply critical of the ACLU.

“The fact that they were able to state the Cranston Police Department was using deliberate misinformation is unforgivable,” he said. “To question them, to question these men and women who are keeping us safe, is a disgrace.”

Ward 1 Councilwoman Lammis Vargas said she initially had questions about the cameras and their public rollout, and added that many of her constituents continue to harbor concerns. But noting that her husband, a Warwick Police officer, was involved in the standoff with the assault and robbery suspects in the two Cranston incidents last month, she said she is supportive of the new program.

“I support the cameras … I really, really feel that we need to make sure that we prevent crime as much as possible,” she said.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Anthony Moretti, Hopkins’s chief of staff, renewed his past defense of the program and the way both the mayor and chief have handled its rollout.

“By deferring to the colonel, the mayor basically chose public safety over taking that as a political opportunity,” Moretti said.

Moretti also said initially, two of the victims from the August robbery and assault incidents – a pregnant woman and her husband – had planned to attend Monday’s meeting to offer comment in support of the cameras. They were unable to attend, however, because the woman was giving birth Monday night.

“That’s some of the work that those Flock cameras are doing,” he said.

Hopkins also issued a statement following the conclusion of the council meeting.

“I totally support this program and if the police leadership wants to continue it beyond this initial trial period, I will support them and help identify a source of funds to pay for the cameras. I am firm in my resolve to keep our citizens safe and if this program stops criminals or helps catch someone who is in our city to do us harm, then they will face the full force of our police officers’ best efforts to stop them,” the statement reads.

It continues: “The City Council called this meeting under the guise of wanting to know about the program. That is a legitimate purpose when it is done in the interest of educating themselves. Many of their questions could have been answered with a phone call to Colonel Winquist. I am disappointed that some of the pre-meeting comments did not give the police leadership the support they richly deserve. Instead, the council chose to create a forum for the ACLU and police objectors to be given a moment to attack our safety service personnel and its sources and methods. The City Council is the legislative body in our city. Its primary purpose is to pass ordinances not micro-manage the police department.”

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