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Highway police shooting exposes the limits of body cameras



Hugh Clements

For what seems to be the first time, the Providence Police Department (PPD) release video footage from an officer’s body camera to the public. The video could not be of a higher profile incident: the Thursday shooting by police of Joseph Santos and Christine Demers on a crowded public highway. Santos died and Demers remains hospitalized from gunshot wounds. Ten officers from two different departments (the PPD and the Rhode island State Police) fired over 40 rounds into the truck. The PPD says that their five officers fired 20 shots in total.

What the police revealed in the press conference exposes some of the limits of what body cams can do.

The released video, from the body camera of Officer Matthew McGloin, is short and dramatic, and appears incomplete.

In much of the video, the “police officer has his hand blocking the lens, he has his gun drawn,” said Providence police Chief Hugh Clements.

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The PPD only started officially wearing body cameras less than a month ago. Before that there was a period of testing cameras on select officers. Of the five PPD officers who shot into the truck containing Santos and Demers, only one had a body camera both assigned and activated.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Steven Paré

    Major Oscar Perez, 23 veteran: “Major Perez did not have a body cam. He’s a major and a body cam is not assigned to command staff so that is not unusual,” said Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré.

  • Sgt. Gregory Paolo, 21 veteran: “Sgt Paolo did not have a body cam. One has not been assigned,” said Paré.
  • Officer Matthew McGloin, 7 veteran: “Officer McGloin had a body cam and that’s the footage that you will see.”
  • Officer Christopher Ziroli, 7 veteran: “Officer Ziroli had a body cam that was not activated,” said Paré. “That officer tapped that body cam button once, and you have to tap it twice in order for it to be engaged.”
  • Officer Thomas Zincone, 22 veteran: “Officer Zincone was a fifth officer who had a body cam but did not engage the body cam at all,” said Paré. “In the height of both the pursuit and apprehension of this individual we believe that he just didn’t remember to put his body cam on.”

That’s five officers, with only one active body camera. Note also that this footage was shown to help bolster the PPD narrative that the shooting was proper and justified. Would the footage have been released so easily if it demonstrated police misconduct?

“The Providence Police Department just went into body cameras in the last couple months. All officers have not yet been assigned body cams,” said Paré, by way of explanation. “They’ve gone through training and this is a new piece of equipment and so we know that it’s going to take both time and continuous training. We firmly believe that in a situation like this it hasn’t been on our police officers and there will be time s that they will just forget to put it on. And times in which mistakes are made, where you have to tap twice. So like a firearm, this is a tool that has to be embedded and then it becomes second nature.”

Here’s the full press conference:

Joseph Santos, deceased