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Mayor Smiley’s ATV plan emboldens surveillance and threatens civil liberties

Tyler Jackman

Opinions Editor

Image via Ray-ality TV

In recent years, Providence has become a haven for chaos and lawlessness. Once the vibrant and dynamic heart of Rhode Island, the city has descended into anarchy, with crime and chaos running rampant. At least, one will think so if the alarmism of the recent crime panic is taken at face value. Yet, this is not so; crime in the Renaissance City has been shrinking as a whole since 2010. The realities of crime and the resulting moral panic can be lost on those who fail to analyze it on a macroscale and instead view crime through a sensationalist lens. Apparently, this view even extends up to the office of Mayor Brett Smiley.


Earlier this month, Smiley and Col. Oscar Perez, chief of police of the Providence Police Department, announced the creation of a “Community Response Team” to crack down on illegal ATV and dirt bike usage. The team is slated to use undercover police work, social media monitoring, a dedicated tip line and body and surveillance camera footage to track not only the illegal usage, but also the sale and storage of ATVs and dirt bikes. In addition, the Community Response Team will seek to use gathered information to enhance criminal charges on the riders.


“That means if we can use additional information to charge people with additional crimes that they are committing, like reckless endangerment or destruction of property, then these motorists will be held to a higher standard,” Smiley said at the press conference.


The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island and Black Lives Matter RI PAC shared a joint statement following the announcement, sharing concern over the announced crackdown and its implications for the city.


“We know that turning civil traffic offenses into criminal ones in this context will disproportionately affect young people and Black and Brown neighborhoods, have a severely discriminatory impact, and undermine the critical need for greater equity in the criminal justice system,” the joint statement reads. “These concerns are compounded by the City’s stated intention of using ‘video technology’ to track down ATV and dirt bike users. Given the objections that we and others have raised about the intrusive installation of Flock Safety surveillance technology in Providence and the severely limited protections that residents have from this technology, the potential use of these cameras to track and target ATV users should be extremely troubling to anybody concerned about privacy.”


Raising concerns over Smiley’s crackdown does not mean turning a blind eye to the issue. ATV and dirt bike usage is illegal to use on public streets in Providence, and poses a significant risk to both the rider and those around them. It is imperative to consider, however, the ramifications that will follow for residents of Providence when the measures come into force.


Providence, in recent years, has already vastly increased its surveillance on the city’s residents in the name of fighting crime. In 2022, Providence installed 85 license plate reader cameras from Flock Safety across the streets of the city, ostensibly to better track down criminals.


These readers do not cross check license plates with watchlists and erase the data like most plate readers, but instead registers every driver into a list that can be monitored by any law enforcement official. In pushing the reforms, Smiley could use these intrusive Flock cameras even more harshly, logging the movements of every rider in the push to surveil them and enhance any potential charges.


The usage of a community tip line, though not disturbing at first glance, also raises troubling concerns. The tip line does not just encourage reporting active ATV and dirt bike riders, but urges the public to report the private ownership of the recreational vehicles. In this, community residents will be incentivized to report their neighbors who may not even use the vehicles on public streets, yet will still be potentially exposed to numerous charges or the seizure and destruction of their property.


Using ATVs and dirt bikes on the streets of Providence are dangerous traffic violations, and should be indicted as such. Yet, increasing the surveillance on Providence residents is a last ditch measure that will erode civil liberties in the city. Already, we see the impact that disproportionate policing has on communities of color and on poverty-stricken Americans, and Smiley’s plan risks accelerating these issues if it is not put in place with the proper guardrails.


In 2021, then-candidate for Mayor Smiley expanded on his views regarding crime and policing at a press conference. In said conference, Smiley noted, “There’s a serious trust deficit right now. There’s a deficit of trust between the community and the police.”


On ATV riders, Smiley stated, “If I were Mayor I would be meeting as well [with ATV riders.] I think it’s totally appropriate to explore an off-road, safe, appropriate place for them to ride their vehicles. And I don’t have any objection to that and I understand that’s a recreational opportunity that’s appealing to a lot of people in the City.”


Now that Smiley has taken the reins, it’s all but clear that the mayor is failing to meet the moment.


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