No license plate readers on Mt. Hope Bridge after all

Portsmouth Town Council reverses course after hearing concerns on privacy, effectiveness in suicide prevention

By Jim McGaw
Posted 7/12/22

Four weeks after approving a pilot program that would have put automatic license plate recognition (ALPR) cameras on the Mt. Hope Bridge to assist police in suicide prevention, the Town Council Monday night voted unanimously to rescind its previous vote.

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No license plate readers on Mt. Hope Bridge after all

Portsmouth Town Council reverses course after hearing concerns on privacy, effectiveness in suicide prevention


PORTSMOUTH — Four weeks after approving a pilot program that would have put automatic license plate recognition (ALPR) cameras on the Mt. Hope Bridge to assist police in suicide prevention, the Town Council Monday night voted unanimously to rescind its previous vote.

In the end, numerous concerns raised by citizens and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) over data privacy and the effectiveness of ALPRs in preventing suicides led to the council reversing course.

“I feel the privacy concerns outweigh the public safety advantages,” said council member Leonard Katzman.

Katzman put the item on Monday’s agenda and made the motion to rescind the 5-1 vote taken June 13 to approve a one-year pilot program for the plate-readers. (Council member Daniela Abbott cast the lone dissenting vote on June 13; Council President Kevin Aguiar was absent.) After much discussion Monday, the council voted 7-0 to cancel the earlier decree.

Under the program, a company called Flock Safety would provide the solar-powered and motion-activated cameras, paid for by the Matthew Patton Foundation and the East Bay Community Action Program (EBCAP) at no cost to taxpayers. During the trial period, one ALPR would be positioned on Bristol Ferry Road and a second on Boyds Lane in Portsmouth to capture license plates approaching the bridge. (Although the idea was to be in partnership with Bristol Police, who would have cameras on the other side of the span, on Monday it was revealed the Bristol Town Council has taken no action on the proposal.)

According to Police Chief Brian Peters, the cameras photograph only the rear of an automobile. If an ALPR captured a license plate associated with a suicidal individual who was identified as heading toward the Mt. Hope Bridge, officers could respond to the area to intervene, he said.

Other than a letter the ACLU wrote to the Cranston City Council last year, urging the city to reject ALPRs, council members faced little pushback when Chief Peters first proposed the pilot program on June 13. They heard plenty, however, after the vote was taken.

Local journalist and blogger John McDaid, of Gormley Avenue, strongly urged the council to reconsider its decision.

“I believe everyone involved in this was operating in good faith,” said McDaid, adding that police were “doing what they believe was in the best interests of the public.”

However, he said, the pilot program was “sold to the council under false pretenses.” There’s no information to suggest that Flock, he said, has ever installed an ALPR on a bridge in an attempt to prevent death by suicide. 

McDaid also questioned the effectiveness of the ALPRs when it comes to police response time. “It takes one minute, at average speed, to drive to the middle of the Mt. Hope Bridge. I timed it,” he said. (Chief Peters had previously stated that some people who are thinking about jumping from the span often make multiple passes beforehand, thereby giving police extra time.)

McDaid said while he respected both the Matthew Patton Foundation and EBCAP, “neither of these organizations, in my opinion, should be funding something which the vendor themselves disclaims as being outside the scope of their mission statement.” In addition, it’s obvious there would be some local costs associated with the program, despite it being sold as free, he said.

McDaid ended by urging the council to get behind efforts by Melissa Cotta and Bridging the Gap to get suicide prevention barriers installed on three of Rhode Island’s bridges, including Mt. Hope Bridge.

“Nets stop jumpers; cameras do not,” he said.

Privacy issues

Faye Dion of McCorrie Lane, an attorney and board member of the Rhode Island ACLU, echoed many of the comments the ACLU made in a commentary released Monday, which took the council to task for its previous decision. That included a hypothetical situation: What if the State of Mississippi learned that one of its residents had left the state to have an abortion? 

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, digital and privacy experts are raising concerns over how data can be weaponized against residents who live in states where abortion is banned or criminalized, she said. According to Flock’s own literature, Dion said, there’s nothing preventing the company from tracking out-of-state travel and selling that data or providing it to law enforcement in other states.

“The problem is, it’s not our data,” Dion said, noting that private citizens are already being constantly monitored and recorded. More efforts should be placed in installing physical barriers on bridges, she said.

Sal Carceller, of Lepes Road, also opposed the ALPRs. “I’m not in favor of any surveillance of any citizens that are law-abiding — none,” he said. “If I’m a criminal, feel free to track me.”

Carceller, who was born in Spain under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco but escaped with his family in the 1960s, said he’s sensitive to issues of government surveillance, and has worked in data collection for three decades.

“The only way to keep data safe in the cloud is for you to completely own it and bring your own security teams,” Carceller said. “Flock has access to that data; these are not your keys.”

Larry Fitzmorris, the president of Portsmouth Concerned Citizens, said he “grudgingly” supported the proposal on June 13 despite being against more government surveillance. However, the PCC’s support was, and still is, contingent upon the council approving an ordinance, rather than a mere policy that can be changed without citizen oversight, he said.

Jessica Roach, of Canton Avenue, said the information Flock is collecting “is extremely sensitive data,” including statistics regarding the mental health of people at risk of suicide. The company is not required to abide by the same rules of privacy as do health professionals, she said.

Peters, others respond

Chief Peters repeated that the ALPRs would be installed only as part of a one-year pilot program that could always be tweaked or suspended altogether. 

“I still believe this program has merit,” he said. “We were there as late as Fourth of July evening … where officers had to physically restrain a person who was leaning against the railing of that bridge.”

John Patton of the Matthew Patton Foundation said while he agreed that bridge barriers “are the right solution,” there’s no telling if or when they will be installed on the Mt. Hope Bridge. 

“The fear that the data might be misused shouldn’t overwhelm the good that we can do,” he said. 

Laura Ann Holland, a representative from Flock Safety, testified via Zoom that the company would not share any data with another party unless the town expressly permitted it.

What if the FBI asked for data? council member J. Mark Ryan asked Holland. 

Holland said she’d have to consult Flock’s attorney, but she knew of no instance in which that has happened.

Ryan said while it’s a “worthwhile project that needs more work,” he supported rescinding the previous vote on the pilot program because there were no legal assurances that “random photos of license plates” couldn’t be used for other purposes.

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