PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island is on track to be the first state in the nation to outfit all of its uniformed police officers and supervisors with body-worn cameras.
A statewide program introduced at the State House on Wednesday at the request of Attorney General Peter F. Neronha will equip 1,700 local police officers and state troopers with the cameras over the next 12 to 18 months. The program has the backing of legislative leaders and the governor.
The legislation, sponsored by Central Falls Senator Jonathon Acosta and Providence Representative José Batista, will establish how the program will be funded and will require a statewide policy regarding the use of the body-worn cameras.
Governor Daniel McKee called the program “an important step forward in strengthening the police-community relations” in Rhode Island.
“Now is the time to bring law enforcement and our communities together in a positive way, and this program helps us do just that — building trust, accountability, and transparency between our police officers and the people that they protect and serve,” McKee said during a news conference at the State House with the state’s top political and law enforcement leaders. “We know that body cameras are an effective public safety tool, that they benefit community members and police alike, and they can play a big role in building the mutual trust. ... Now’s the time to get it done.”
Jim Vincent, the president of the Providence branch of the NAACP, told the crowd that police-community relations were as important for civil rights as voting rights.
Body-worn cameras will help with accountability, public trust, and confidence and, when used correctly, will help build police-community relations, Vincent said.
“When people say things cannot get done in Rhode Island, remind them about what’s happening today,” Vincent said. “When people put their mind to something important — and believe me, police-community relations are important — you can get it done. This is the proof, right here.”
This idea has been discussed for years, and accelerated last year amid national calls for police accountability.
In 2017, the Providence Police Department became the first in Rhode Island to acquire body-worn cameras. Within a few weeks, the department faced its first test when officers and troopers shot and killed a motorist and wounded his passenger on Route 95 in the middle of the day. The chief and public safety commissioner released the videos the next day and held a news conference explaining how the deadly shooting unfolded.
“Providence, in many ways, set us on this path by showing what body cams can do for transparency and accountability,” Neronha said. “That was a bold move by Providence, and I’m grateful for their setting the pathway, and frankly, being a sounding board and presenting a series of test cases as to how we can address this issue.”
The Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association began discussing and researching how to equip their officers with cameras. Newport police have obtained body-worn cameras, and the state police and Warwick have run pilot programs.
West Greenwich Chief Richard Ramsay, who is president of the chiefs association, said police want the cameras — one of his officers even asked to buy his own — but the costs of data storage and having personnel to manage the data were prohibitive for smaller departments.
So, over the last year, Neronha’s office has been working with the chiefs, the state police, and legislative leaders on a plan to fund the equipment and develop a statewide best practices policy.
All police departments may opt in, and Ramsay said that all of the chiefs are interested. The initiative was part of the Association’s Twenty for 2020 Campaign, intended to build the public’s trust in law enforcement with promises that focus on training, transparency, communication, and human rights.
The program will be funded by $1 million from the attorney general’s asset forfeiture fund and $3 million per year in state funding, for a five-year, state-supported implementation period. State Police Colonel James Manni is also seeking federal grants from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The commitment of funding will be in the budget to be considered by the House Finance Committee on Thursday. House Speaker Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio both made clear they were committed.
“I’m enthusiastic about this issue. I think it’s going to go a long way to help not only the police, but also the public,” Ruggerio said. “We think it’s a practical, effective solution to improve police accountability and their relationships with the communities that they serve.”
The legislation will also address establishing statewide policies on how the cameras are used, records retention, privacy issues, compliance, and meeting requirements of open records. The policies will be developed by the attorney general’s office, the state Department of Public Safety, with input from the chiefs association, community members, and other stakeholders. Police departments will be required to follow the statewide policies in order to be eligible for funding.
The statewide policy will also address when the public will be able to view the videos. Neronha said the videos will be treated like a public record and covered under the state Access to Public Records Act.
Neronha sought an opinion last fall from the the state Supreme Court’s ethics advisory panel about what prosecutors can advise police about whether and when to publicly release videos from body-worn cameras. Rules of professional conduct prohibit prosecutors from making comments that could be seen as pretrial publicity — but the public will demand to see videos before a trial, especially in high-profile cases.
Neronha said he wanted to be able to tell police that they can release the videos, and the advisory panel gave him the OK last December, with the caveat that police cannot make any comments beyond stating the facts.
Neronha said prosecutors and the police would make their decisions by considering whether the investigation was substantially complete, and whether releasing the videos would be unlikely to interfere with the investigation. The videos would be accompanied with a disclaimer that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty.
The body-worn cameras “are important, because it’s an opportunity to hold law enforcement accountable, in those instances where it’s necessary,” Neronha said. “It’s also an opportunity to show the public that police officers, as I believe they do many, many, many times, if not, most of the time, did it the right way.”
Acosta, who is sponsoring the legislation in the Senate, said the cameras were a “very small step” in building trust.
“We still have to do the work — members of law enforcement and members of the community, elected officials — we still have to do the work to repair this relationship,” said Acosta, who is sponsoring the legislation in the Senate. “But at least we’re willing to acknowledge it and start taking that step together.
“There’s going to be some things that we see on video that we’re not necessarily proud of, on the community side and on the law enforcement side,” he added. “There’s going to be a lot of uncomfortable conversations that we have to have. But in the end, we’ll be moving forward.”