NEWS

Police cameras, communications concerns spur charged discussion

Council plans special session on new law enforcement program

By DANIEL A. KITTREDGE
Posted 8/25/21

By DANIEL KITTREDGE Concerns over a new license plate camera program being instituted by city police - as well as long-simmering tensions between members of the City Council and the administration over communication issues - led to some pointed, and

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NEWS

Police cameras, communications concerns spur charged discussion

Council plans special session on new law enforcement program

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Concerns over a new license plate camera program being instituted by city police – as well as long-simmering tensions between members of the City Council and the administration over communication issues – led to some pointed, and heated, exchanges in Council Chambers at City Hall on Monday night.

The installation of the new automated license plate reading, or ALPR, cameras – which police say will be used as part of a 60-day pilot program – was first revealed early last week through a report from WJAR.

On Aug. 18, Cranston Police held a joint press conference with law enforcement officials from Woonsocket and Pawtucket, which are also taking part in the pilot program, to formally announce the partnership with Georgia-based company Flock Safety, which makes the cameras.

In all, 29 of the cameras have been installed across Cranston, according to a statement issued following the press conference.

The statement reads: “All of these cameras are on city-owned property. These cameras will soon be fully activated and monitored. Flock Safety ALPR cameras will help law enforcement investigate crime by providing objective evidence. They capture still photographs of license plates and vehicle characteristics as they travel on public roads. The cameras do not independently record people or faces. They will be used to solve and reduce violent and property crime. The cameras will never be used for traffic enforcement, as they cannot track speed or identify unregistered or uninsured vehicles.”

In the statement, Cranston Chief of Police Col. Michael Winquist said the cameras have been used in other communities across the country “for several years to enhance public safety.”

“Crime is constantly changing and innovative, and it is incumbent upon law enforcement leaders to explore the latest technology that will maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of our resources to keep our communities safe,” the chief said in the statement. “We are proud to partner with Flock Safety, a company that emphasizes objective, ethical policing and strong community partnerships, to help improve public safety in our city and across Rhode Island.”

There have been concerns raised, however, both over the cameras themselves and the manner in which the program became public knowledge.

The ACLU of Rhode Island, in a statement last week, said that residents of Cranston and the other communities involved in the pilot program “should have a say about whether they want potentially invasive and discriminatory technologies in their neighborhoods.”

“The installation of surveillance tools that directly impact the privacy of Rhode Island residents and others driving through the communities where they are installed is disturbing in itself,” the organization’s statement continues. “But the clandestine nature by which the cameras were placed, and the failure of the three cities in which the trial implementation of this tool is known to be happening to seek any advance public input, only make this action more concerning.”

During Monday’s meeting of the City Council, the cameras – while not on the docket for discussion – came up at different points.

During a section of the agenda allowing public comment on undocketed items, two city residents, David Baldwin and attorney John R. Grasso, raised concerns over the program and its rollout.

Baldwin called on the council to intervene in the matter to ensure several conditions were met before the new system is activated. Those include establishing a “default” opt-out option; conducting a survey of residents; setting up a protocol to monitor the use of the cameras; and creating “significant penalties” for any authorized use or access to the information collected by the cameras.

Grasso questioned how the camera program was authorized “without involving any of our representative government.”

“It’s not a small thing to begin to accumulate recordings of the whereabouts of the citizens and the members of our community,” he said. “I’m certainly a law enforcement advocate. The police do a fantastic job in the city of Cranston … I feel safe in Cranston. However, this decision is not a small one, and it certainly infringes on our right to certain levels of privacy.”

Later, during the executive communications portion of the agenda, Anthony Moretti, chief of staff for Mayor Ken Hopkins, provided a timeline of how the administration was informed of the program.

“We recognize the concerns of some council people,” he said, reading a set of comments and posts that council members had posted on Facebook questioning the program and indicating they had no prior knowledge of it before media reports were published.

Moretti said Winquist approached the administration roughly two months ago to brief the mayor on the Flock Safety cameras. He said the mayor was initially “quite concerned” over issues such as privacy and data collection, but Winquist later returned to address those issues “to the mayor’s satisfaction.” He also described the cameras as a “potential game-changer” for law enforcement in terms of crime investigations.

“The mayor trusts Col. Winquist. He trusts the command staff of the police department,” Moretti said.

Moretti initially pushed for Police Maj. Todd Patalano, who was in attendance, to be allowed to provide additional information on the camera program.

Ultimately, however, based on the advised of legal counsel, Council President Chris Paplauskas and others agreed to instead schedule a special meeting to allow more open discussion of the matter. Legal concerns had been focused on the issue’s lack of inclusion on the docket and the resulting potential for open meetings law compliance.

Paplauskas said he planned to work with the city clerk’s office to schedule a special session on the cameras “as soon as possible.”

It was at the end of the agenda, during the council member communications portion of the meeting, that tensions boiled over.

Citywide Councilwoman Jessica Marino had requested discussion of “citywide communications” be included on the docket, and she called for improved outreach from the mayor’s office to both council members and the public at large.

She said she and other council members had previously met with the administration on the issue, and that issues discussed Monday – including the cameras, access to city parks and the city’s response to the weekend’s storm – made it “more apparent than ever how important this topic is.”

The Fung administration, Marino said, did a “very good job” in sending regular messages to council members to keep them apprised of various developments and issues. She said she was “just at a loss” over the recent communications concerns given the level of staffing in the mayor’s office relative to the previous administration.

“At its core, what I’m asking for and seeking is better communications from the administration to the council members so that we can all serve the residents of Cranston as best we can,” she said.

She added: “I remained hopeful that things would improve, and unfortunately I haven’t seen that improvement.

At that point, Moretti returned to the podium, defending the administration’s handling of the cameras and the communications issue more broadly. During his comments, he raised his voice and became visibly upset.

“I think it was a cheap shot at the mayor and the administration … I’m not prepared for this. I wish it was more specific. Then I could be in a much better position to articulate all the times that the mayor’s office has communicated to this City Council. They’re copied on every press release. We do not have a policy of disclosing confidential police information.”

He continued: “I think this is rotten. I think it’s a cheap political shot … Everyone in this room knows that they could come into the administration, the mayor’s office, personally, and talk to that gentleman. And he’s open-minded to every councilperson, every non-councilperson, almost every citizen. This guy is the most open person, but you people constantly bash him. It’s a two-way street, people. Where’s your communication? How about those … Facebook posts that you have banging, basically, Chief Winquist and the Police Department that you people weren’t informed? Why don’t you call Col. Winquist? Why don’t you call the mayor? Why don’t call me, if you’re so concerned about it? Be genuine as opposed to just throwing political shots in this forum.”

Marino responded: “I cannot stress enough that this is no type of political shot. This has nothing to do with Chief Winquist. This has nothing to do with any political attack, and I take offense by that suggestion.”

She added: “My concern is that the prior administration communicated to us as council members as to issues that are of great importance throughout this city. We came to the administration, we asked for that, we gave your time. It’s been eight months, well staffed, and we still don’t get those communications … It is not our burden as council members to come knock on Mayor Hopkins’ door every two days or every day to ask, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ That’s not the way our modern city should operate, nor is it the way it operated in the past. This is nothing personal. This is about efficiency, and this is, I’m seeking improvement. And I’m sad to hear that this is your response.

Other council members then responded to the comments from Marino and Moretti.

Ward 6 Councilman Matthew Reilly defended the administration and was critical of some of his council colleagues. He suggested the complaints over communications from the mayor’s office were “ridiculous.”

“I’ve never once not had a phone call answered I’ve never had the door locked on me,” he said. “I do know some people in this room that are making these claims who don’t answer their phone from the mayor’s office, who don’t come to meetings that the mayor has asked them to come to. So if we’re going to start letting everything out, then things are going to come out. Communication is a two-way street.”

He added: “Let’s stop trying to throw shots. Let’s focus on what has to be done for the city … It’s nonsense and it is political”

Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan said he considers Hopkins, with whom he served one term on the council, to be a “friend.”

But he echoed Marino in terms of what he views as a sharp difference in the way the current administration communicates with council members compared with the Fung administration.

“The prior administration went out of their way to make sure that we were getting all the pertinent information,” he said.

He also said “genuine requests” for more communication have been made both publicly and during private conversations.

Regarding the cameras, Donegan said he found out through media reports.

“I had no idea that was going on until the news stories. I’m sorry, I don’t think that’s a good thing,” he said. “It’s not a shot at the mayor personally, or at you, Tony, or any member of the administration. It’s just a bit of constructive feedback that, when I have constituents calling saying, ‘John, what’s going on,’ I have no idea. That’s not a good thing.”

He added: “We’re not asking for the world. Just let the information be provided to us when it should be. We shouldn’t be finding out from a press release.”

Citywide Councilman Robert Ferri called on Moretti to apologize to Marino.

“You heard it as a political shot? No. We’re trying to do a better job, what we’re elected to do … It’s got nothing to do with taking a personal shot at Mayor Hopkins or Anthony Moretti,” he said. “That’s what we hear every time we ask you something. And stop thinking that way, because that’s not what we’re doing.”

Ward 1 Councilwoman Lammis Vargas described Moretti’s remarks as “a little bit out of line” and pushed back against his characterization of Marino’s comments as “political shot.”

“We’re all here to work together for the city,” she said.

Ward 2 Councilwoman Aniece Germain called Moretti’s response to Marino “very disrespectful” and said he “needs to cool off.”

“At the end of the day, I think we all want one thing – the betterment of the residents of the city of Cranston,” she said.

Citywide Councilwoman Nicole Renzulli said “good communication is kind of a subjective term.”

“I do think that Councilwoman Marino … I try to assume positive intent, and I think that she just wanted better communication, whatever that means to her,” she said. “I think on the other side, that Mayor Hopkins has excellent communication, maybe in different ways than the prior administration had. We do get a lot of information on Facebook.”

Renzulli also said Hopkins, Moretti and other members of the administration have been accessible to herself and other council members, so she understood why Moretti “perhaps took it personally.”

“While I don’t think it’s OK for anyone to be yelling at anyone, I do know that there are other people in this room who have gotten very loud at council meetings and have yelled at the administration and other council members, and I like to again assume positive intent, because we’re all passionate about what we’re talking about, and we all have the same goal, and that is to lead this city and help its residents,” she said. “So maybe we just need to come together and be specific about what we’re asking for, because if we continue to just ask for better communication … I think we will continue to be disappointed.”

Ending the discussion, Paplauskas and Council Vice President Ed Brady of Ward 4 struck similar notes.

“I think ultimately, we have a lot of passionate people in this room who all care about the city of Cranston,” Brady said.

“I know we’re all trying to work very hard for the city … I hope that from here on, we can bridge that gap in communication,” Paplauskas said.

Elsewhere on Monday’s agenda:

* The council unanimously approved a resolution sponsored by Reilly recognizing September as Recovery Month in the city. The designation is meant to show the community’s for those battling substance abuse. A “Celebration of Recovery” event is planned for Tuesday, Sept. 14, starting at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall. * The council unanimously approved a handful of contractual agreements, including a new three-year pact between the city and LIUNA Local 1322 and agreements between the school district and its tradespeople, bus drivers, custodians and employees who belong to Rhode Island Council 94 AFSCME AFL-CIO.

Arthur Jordan, business manager for Local 1322, told the council: “I think it’s a contract that’s very fair to the taxpayer … And I think it’s fair to the employees. Gives them a modest raise and lets them know that the hard work they do is appreciated.” * Moretti told council members that Hopkins had planned to hold a Fall Harvest Festival this year, but those plans have been delayed until later – perhaps the spring – due to the renewed pandemic concerns.

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