PROVIDENCE — Just over a week after Rhode Island’s leaders announced plans to equip 1,700 police officers and state troopers with body-worn cameras in the next 12 to 18 months, the legislation is sailing through the General Assembly.
The House approved its bill Wednesday, and the Senate voted unanimously Thursday; the companion legislation will also need approval. The votes are putting Rhode Island on the path to be the first in the nation with a statewide body-worn camera program.
Governor Daniel McKee, Attorney General Peter F. Neronha, the leaders of the House and Senate, police chiefs, and police unions announced the plan on June 16 and made clear they were united. Democrat and Republican legislators in the General Assembly lined up to get the work done.
Under an amendment added by the House Finance Committee, the budget bill considered by the House Thursday includes $15 million for the launch of the statewide program and its first five years of operation. The program will also be funded by $1 million from the attorney general’s asset forfeiture fund. State Police Colonel James Manni is also seeking federal grants from the US Department of Justice.
The legislation, sponsored by Central Falls Senator Jonathon Acosta and Providence Representative José Batista, establishes how the program will be funded and will require a statewide policy regarding the use of the body-worn cameras.
The program came together after a year of protests and civil unrest nationally and in Rhode Island over racial justice and police brutality, much of it documented by bystanders’ cellphones and officers’ body-worn cameras.
Just on Wednesday, an off-duty Pawtucket officer shot and wounded a teenage driver outside a West Greenwich pizza parlor. Officer Dan Dolan Jr. is on leave while the police and attorney general’s office investigate. The incident was caught on the pizza parlor’s surveillance camera.
Acosta spoke about the fractured relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve. “We’ve grown increasingly aware that it’s a relationship that needs repairing and part of that is the proliferation of technology, camera phones, and body cams,” he said.
Years ago, body-worn cameras were seen as cost-prohibitive, law enforcement was reluctant to sign on, and the communities were skeptical that the videos would make any difference, Acosta said. Now, police and the public see the value in the cameras for repairing the relationships and building trust.
“The work that needs to be done between communities and law enforcement is a long road, but we know this is one step, at least right now, that all the parties are willing to take,” Acosta said.
Senator Leonidas Raptakis, who represents Coventry, East Greenwich, and West Greenwich, said the Senate should fully fund the program after the five years of funding is up. “It sends a strong message that it is a very good piece of legislation and good public policy for all Rhode Islanders,” he said.
Some senators said the videos will show that a majority of officers are doing good work.
Senator Joshua Miller, who represents a district straddling Cranston and Providence, said he’s seen the value in the body-worn camera program at the Providence Police Department. As a member of the Providence Police Advisory Council, Miller said, he and other members are shown videos from some incidents police encounter.
The videos have convinced him that the legislation will protect citizens as well as officers doing their job properly.
Recently, Miller said, the council saw videos from officers who responded to neighborhood complaints about a homeless encampment in Elmwood.
“To every person they encountered, the compassion was tremendous,” Miller said, adding that the videos from the encounter at the encampment could be used as a training tool nationally on how to handle similar situations.
That was why Republican Senator Jessica de la Cruz said she was backing the bill. “Not because I believe the police force has issues of police brutality,” said de la Cruz, who represents Burrillville, Glocester, and North Smithfield. “I think it’s a good bill to support because it’s going to highlight how great our police force is.”