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Mayor Smiley pushes for noise camera installation in Providence

Community members discuss surveillance, potential racial disparities in enforcement, costs

Since the beginning of his campaign, Mayor Brett Smiley has targeted noise violations. Now, Smiley is pushing for acoustic cameras across Providence to address vehicles that violate the city’s noise ordinance. 

“Excessive noise is one of the top complaints we hear from residents,” wrote Josh Estrella, press secretary for the City of Providence, in an email to The Herald. “When recently surveyed, 40 percent of Providence residents said they are some degree of dissatisfied with respect for noise ordinances in their community.”

On March 12, 10 representatives introduced bill H7368, which would authorize municipalities to install “automated noise violation detection systems.” The bill permits systems “with one or more sensors” that record “images of motor vehicles” while measuring sound levels. According to Rhode Island general laws, violators caught by the system could be fined between $50 and $500. 

The primary sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Anthony DeSimone (D-District 5), did not respond to a request for comment.  


John Wilner, communications coordinator for the Providence Noise Project, has surveyed several community members experiencing issues with noise. He shared that the majority of survey respondents have considered leaving the city due to noise. The largest issue highlighted by respondents was vehicle noise. 

Wilner explained that some drivers deliberately modify their mufflers or speaker systems, creating more noise. “It’s an effort to be noisy for the sake of being noisy and it’s mobile,” he said.

Estrella noted that the city has not decided on the exact camera model to use if bill H7368 is approved. “We are actively reviewing best practices in other cities but we will not have any specifics on the devices or implementation strategies until after a Request for Information and Request for Proposals,” he wrote. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of R.I., has expressed their opposition to the bill, expressing concern over how the cameras might be used. 

“We don’t really know how data is being stored, we don’t know how long it’s being stored — we don’t even know what kind of data (the cameras are) collecting,” said Hannah Stern, a policy associate with the ACLU. 

She added that other municipalities have partnered with private technology companies for noise cameras. “This is a huge concern, especially when there are no statutory or ordinance limitations on the use of this type of technology,” she said. “You’re basically giving that company free reign to do what they want with that data.”

The city does not yet have a cost estimate for the devices, but Estrella noted that “Providence has an existing noise ordinance that our police officers are tasked with enforcing manually so (noise enforcement) funds are already being expended on staff.” 

The ACLU believes that attention and effort could be better used elsewhere, Stern said. 

“Quality of life has never been tied to surveilling people more,” she said, citing education, housing and employment as three areas more deeply tied to living standards. “If we’re really concerned about improving community safety and quality of life, I don’t think these cameras are going to do what we’re hoping.”

For Wilner, noise is a huge life quality concern. “Noise is first and foremost a public health issue,” he said.


Dr. Erica Walker, assistant professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health and founder of the Community Noise Lab, explained that excess exposure to noise can negatively impact physical and mental health. 

But, Walker does not believe noise cameras are the solution. “I am 100% against noise cameras,” she said, citing surveillance and equity concerns.“When it comes to surveillance, you always need to realize that you’re opening up a Pandora’s Box,” she added. “Once you open up the surveillance thing, there is no going back.” 

To the ACLU, surveillance of any form is a concern, Stern said, noting that the organization has also opposed the installation of red-light and “block the box” cameras. 

According to Imran Dharamsi ’24, who currently researches regulations on vehicle noise, acoustic cameras are “expensive devices” that “take a lot of headache to install.”

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In his view, the cameras could misfire. “Measuring sound is really complicated,” Dharamsi explained. If the cameras accidentally attributed a loud noise to the wrong vehicle, that driver might fight a ticket they didn’t deserve, he added. “It’s even more difficult because you’re fighting some opaque machine that just decided to ticket you.”

Walker also expressed concern that the acoustic cameras could disproportionately impact minority communities.

In a study conducted in one of her classes, Walker’s students found that noise levels were higher in lower-income and predominantly non-white neighborhoods. Walker fears that this means the cameras will be installed in “any neighborhood where there’s lots of Black and brown people.”

“Noise can be a way that we target populations that we don’t necessarily want in our communities,” she continued. “Sometimes it can be racial, sometimes it can be ageist, sometimes it can be xenophobic … the headline is going to be, five years from now, communities of color are overrepresented in cases of noise complaints.” 

Smiley has publicly stated that the cameras would be evenly installed across the city, Estrella wrote. He added that “the city will need to undergo a competitive procurement process before implementing the cameras and decisions regarding installation locations would not be finalized until after the legislation passes.”

To Wilner, not installing noise cameras in minority communities would be unfair, since they are facing the consequences of noise pollution. “Those people need help, but we are being told that the noise cameras can’t be put in those places because that’s unfair,” he said. 

Wilner believes that the technology is also less likely to have issues of bias than traditional police enforcement. Officers can be “selective on who they’re going to pull over,” he said. “The noise (camera) is based entirely on the sound level.”

Dharamsi stressed that there are a multitude of ways to address noise, noting that altering the built environment, raising public awareness about noise issues or regulating the sale of modified vehicle parts can all help decrease noise levels. 

“The best solutions are those solutions where everybody is better off,” Walker said. “We have the brains in this town to actually think of some solutions that are more effective, less expensive and have an ability to make everyone better off.”

Ciara Meyer

Ciara Meyer is a Senior Staff Writer covering the Beyond Brown beat. She is from Saratoga Springs, New York and plans on concentrating in Statistics and English nonfiction. In her free time, she loves scrapbooking and building lego flowers.

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