‘These are only focused on the license plate’: Woonsocket police share experience with Flock cameras

WOONSOCKET, R.I. (WLNE) — In light of Providence’s announcement that it will activate license plate reading cameras within 30 days to fight crime, police in Woonsocket are sharing their experience with Flock cameras.

“So, if you were the victim of a hit-and-run traffic crash right here at this street, here — If we have a Flock camera in this area either pass the scene or before the scene and you have a good vehicle description — even if it’s just partial plate, not a full license plate on the vehicle, we’ve got a good chance of identifying the vehicle that’s involved,” explained Woonsocket Police Chief Thomas Oates.

The city of Woonsocket took part in the one-year trial period with the Flock cameras, and agreed to a three-year contract once the trial was up.

Oates said Woonsocket now has 13 cameras spread throughout the city, 12 of them are functioning, two additional ones are being added, and five of the cameras will soon move to different areas of the city.

Here’s how it works: police are alerted when a car from the national hot list drives through their city. To be on the hot list, the vehicle must be connected to a crime, reported as stolen, or involved in a missing persons case or Amber Alert.

From there, police know to keep an eye out for the car in question.

So far, Oates said the Flock cameras have led to 11 arrests for stolen vehicles, four warrants on offenses such as fraud, child molestation, felony assault and battery, vandalism, reckless operation, and leaving the scene of an accident with injuries.

While the Rhode Island ACLU Wednesday called the move by the capital city to add Flock cameras to the streets “a grossly unregulated and deeply intrusive police surveillance system,” Oates said the license plate reading system is not “capturing any other information than what you and I are seeing right out here on the street. We’re seeing license plates of vehicles going by — actually with us, out here visually, we can see what the operators of the vehicle looks.”

“These are only focused on the license plate or certain characteristics on the vehicle,” added Oates. “And the only time we’re even looking for that is if it’s associated with crime.”

As for privacy, Oates said a “stringent” audit is done to the system every month that tracks search history to make sure any officer who searches for a plate, is doing so in connection with an ongoing criminal investigation. This way, there’s an electronic paper trail that identifies the officer and what they’re searching for.

In Providence, 25 Flock cameras will be turned on across the city. The pilot program will start Tuesday.

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