Policing

State leaders all-in on police body-worn cameras

Of the two big questions, how the program will be funded, and what the statewide policies regarding body-cameras will be, only the funding question was answered adequately. The question of what exactly the statewide policies governing the use of police body-cameras will look like has been left to a rule making process that promises public input, but will ultimately be decided by law-enforcement.
Photo for State leaders all-in on police body-worn cameras

Published on June 16, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

The Governor, Attorney General and legislative leaders joined with law enforcement on Wednesday to announce a statewide program to put body-worn cameras on every frontline police officer and supervisor in Rhode Island. The statewide body-worn camera program, which will be added as a line item in the 2022 budget, is designed to equip the approximately 1,700 uniformed patrol officers – across every municipal police department and the Rhode Island State Police – with body-worn cameras over the next 12-18 months.

The statewide body-worn camera program grew out of a year of research, planning and testing of body-worn cameras by the Rhode Island State Police, the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association (RIPCA) and the Attorney General’s Office. The program aims to equip all uniformed patrol officers in the state, provide multi-year funding to all Rhode Island police departments to purchase and operate the cameras, and requires the development of statewide policies to ensure the effective use of the cameras.

Of the two big questions, how the program will be funded, and what the statewide policies regarding body-cameras will be, only the funding question was answered adequately at the press conference. The question of what exactly the statewide policies governing the use of police body-cameras will look like has been left to a rule making process that promises public input, but will ultimately be decided by law-enforcement.

Funding

The program aims to maximize available federal funding and efficiently use state dollars, including a commitment of up to $1 million from the Attorney General’s Office. Around $3 million per year in state funding is necessary to ensure that all departments can purchase and deploy the cameras for a five-year, state-supported implementation period.

Statewide Policies

The legislation also provides for the creation of statewide policies to ensure that the cameras are used effectively. The policies will be developed by the Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Public Safety, in consultation with RIPCA, and with key input from community members and stakeholders through a formal, public rule-making process. The statewide policies will address body cameras usage, notice to the public, records retention, privacy protections, open records, and compliance monitoring. To be eligible for state funding, police departments will need to follow the statewide body-worn camera policies.

Representative Batista, Senator Acosta and Colonel Manni

“Today, Rhode Island takes an important step forward in strengthening trust, accountability, and transparency between our police officers and the people they protect and serve,” said Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee. “I am proud to be part of a collaborative initiative that will help foster strong, positive community-police relations throughout the state. I thank the Attorney General, Speaker, Senate President and Colonel Manni for coming together and committing to this effective investment in public safety in Rhode Island.”

“For over two decades, every criminal case I have evaluated for potential prosecution as a state or federal prosecutor has come down to two critical questions: ‘What happened, and how do I prove what happened?’ If we cannot answer those questions, justice remains elusive, for everyone,” said Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha. “Body-worn cameras thus can be a powerful tool in our efforts to deliver justice. They show us what happened. They promote accountability for police. They provide compelling evidence where prosecution of a member of the public is warranted. They build community trust. We’ll get better results – results in which the public can have confidence – when we can evaluate every police/community encounter from a place of objective knowledge. The statewide body-worn camera program we announce today gives us an opportunity to do just that.”

“I am pleased that… funding for a statewide body camera program is included in this year’s budget and related legislation pertaining to the rollout will also be considered,” said House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (Democrat, District 23, Warwick). “The use of body cameras provides accountability and transparency, which are very important in law enforcement, and also builds trust within our communities.”

“I am extremely enthusiastic about Rhode Island becoming a national leader by making us one of only a handful of states to equip all patrol officers with body cameras. Body cameras are a practical, effective means to improving police accountability and their relationships with the communities they serve,” said Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (Democrat, District 4, Providence).

“There is an urgent need for reform and more functional oversight of policing. This a right first step in the direction of rebuilding the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” said Senator Jonathan Acosta (Democrat, District 16, Central Falls).

“The funding, acquisition and public access to body-worn cameras is a centerpiece of criminal justice reform in 2021,” said Representative Jose Batista (Democrat, District 12, Providence). “To other legislation the General Assembly has passed this year – raising the minimum wage and making college more affordable – this bill is good for Rhode Islanders and especially good for communities like South Providence and Central Falls.”

“Today body-worn cameras are an essential piece of equipment for all members of law enforcement. They are a key tool for creating transparency, maintaining the public’s trust, enhancing safety and increasing accountability for officers and members of the public alike,” said Colonel James Manni, Superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police and Director of the Department of Public Safety. “This statewide program will ensure that policies and practices governing the use of body-worn cameras are consistent across all jurisdictions and will allow all departments to have access to this critical equipment.”

“Last year the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association launched a statewide initiative called the Twenty for 2020 campaign,” said West Greenwich Police Chief Richard Ramsay, President of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association. “One of the key components included in the campaign was our pledge for every department in the state to research the feasibility of body-worn cameras. Our chiefs have served on a body-worn camera committee with the Attorney General’s Office and the Rhode Island State Police for the past several months and we are in support of implementing a statewide body-worn camera program. The benefits of a body worn camera program are well-established in improving accountability, transparency and professionalism. The Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association looks forward to working with our partners in the State Legislature, Attorney General’s Office and Governor’s Office on making sure this program is equitable, impactful and sustainable.”

“We as a union realize there’s work to be done and this is an excellent beginning,” said Ralph Ezovski from the National Association of Government Employees and the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.

“Footage from body worn cameras is a powerful tool that will be used to ensure accountability in policing and, as a result, work to build public confidence in law enforcement,” said Jim Vincent, President of the Providence branch of the NAACP. “Our elected and community leaders should be working to bridging historic feelings of distrust between communities of color and police. This program works toward achieving that goal.”

Attorney General Neronha fielded questions from the press about the availability of the footage to the public after an event of public interest has occurred.

“Our operating principle is this: When requested, put body camera footage out there as soon as possible,” said Attorney General Neronha. “The only thing that will cause hesitancy is when we believe there’s a case to be prosecuted and releasing the video would damage the prospects of a successful prosecution. Even there, our goal is to complete that investigation as asson as possible so we can push that body camera footage out.”

Speaker Shekarchi took a question about whether or not discussions surrounding the Law Enforcement officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBoR). The House is considering a bill from Representative Anastasia Williams (Democrat, District 9, Providence) to reform LEOBoR. There is no companion bill in the House to Senator Tiara Mack (Democrat, District 6, Providence)’s bill that would simply repeal LEOBoR in its entirety.

UpriseRI asked Speaker Shekarchi about the process, since the bill is being passed as a budget item, it is immune from robust floor debates that might alter the bill to be more or less in accord with the concerns of civil rights groups. Speaker Shekarchi suggested that the bills had robust hearings in the Judiciary Committees of both the House and the Senate, and further expressed that the rule making surrounding the use of police body-cams would be done in an open process which will allow for the community to shape the final product.

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