CRANSTON, R.I. — Sixteen months after Governor Daniel McKee, Attorney General Peter F. Neronha, leaders at the General Assembly, and police announced a bold plan to put body-worn cameras on police officers statewide, the money is coming in.
With local police chiefs, US Senator Jack Reed and US Representative David Cicilline, State Police Colonel Darnell Weaver, and NAACP Providence leader Jim Vincent, Neronha announced on Wednesday that $16 million in grants are ready to be rolled out.
“There are a lot of perspectives about body cameras, but they can help finding truth and justice and accountability for everyone,” Neronha said.
The statewide program is putting body-worn cameras on 1,773 officers from 42 different law enforcement agencies. That includes every municipal police department, except for Smithfield, which opted out, state police and officers at Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island, along with officers at the state Department of Environmental Management.
“Today’s announcement is the culmination of months of this productive teamwork, and I am thankful to our state and municipal partners for their efforts,” Weaver said. “During the last year, we have worked collaboratively with our partners in law enforcement to develop the policies that will govern the use and operation of body-worn cameras by police departments statewide.”
Police departments in Providence and Newport are the only ones in Rhode Island that routinely use the cameras, although several other police departments have launched pilot programs.
“It’s critical, because the evidence is clear that body-worn cameras help police keep our community safer by documenting accounts between police and the public,” Reed said. “Cameras provide law enforcement and prosecutors with highly reliable evidence to win convictions and secure plea deals. Cameras also help our communities by [keeping] those police accountable members of the public. And police officers will now have accurate records of their interactions.”
This plan has been in the works since 2020, when Neronha’s office began working with police chiefs, the state police, and legislative leaders on a plan to fund the equipment and develop a statewide best-practices policy.
McKee signed legislation in June 2021 to create the statewide body-worn camera program. The legislation allows the Department of Public Safety to administer the program, make grants to law enforcement agencies, and lay out the rules of how the program operates. The General Assembly approved $15 million to launch the program in its first five years.
Cicilline said the federal government was making a 10 percent match, of $1.5 million, to the program.
“I think it shows that this is a priority, the local, state, and federal level, and it’s going to make a real difference in communities all across Rhode Island, to help us fight crime, improve policing, and build trust,” he said.
All of the funding is used to operate the cameras over a five-year period.
The attorney general’s office and police leaders worked on establishing statewide policies on how the cameras are used, records retention, privacy issues, compliance, and meeting requirements of open records. The policy will be uniform for all agencies getting grants for the body-worn cameras.
Two years ago, Neronha sought an opinion from the the state Supreme Court’s ethics advisory panel about prosecutors’ advice to police regarding whether and when to publicly release videos from body-worn cameras.
The advisory panel gave the OK to releasing the videos before trials, 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 an investigation. The videos would be accompanied with a disclaimer that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty.
However, ACCESS/Rhode Island, a coalition of nonprofit organizations concerned with government transparency, said the policy falls short.
“Transparency and oversight is only as meaningful as the public’s ability to access the critical footage and information that is collected by this technology,” the coalition said in a statement issued Thursday. “While the policy deployed by the Department of Public Safety and the Attorney General’s office puts in place a structure for these cameras, it remains deficient in strong standards which would provide for timely release of footage relating to incidents that the public should have quick access to, including in situations where there has been serious use of force.”
ACCESS/Rhode Island includes the ACLU of Rhode Island, the New England First Amendment Coalition, the Rhode Island Press Association, Common Cause Rhode Island, and the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island.
The existing policy has “a vague and imprecise expected timeframe” to release footage when there is a serious use of force and doesn’t encourage prompt release, ACCESS/Rhode Island said. The coalition encouraged “robust standards for release to the public of high-interest or highly publicized incidents.”
In 2017, Providence was the first in Rhode Island — and one of the first in New England — to begin using body-worn cameras, and the only department in Rhode Island to deploy the cameras throughout the ranks. The Providence Police leaders had promised that they would quickly release video in police shootings, and within a few weeks, the department’s policy was tested, when officers and troopers shot and killed a motorist and wounded his passenger on Route 95 in the middle of the day. The Providence chief and public safety commissioner released the videos the next day and held a news conference explaining how the deadly shooting unfolded.
“This department chose to go to body-worn cameras, not because there was an incident, not because there was a DOJ mandate, ... it’s because the leadership in the police department saw that this was the technology that’s coming,” Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Paré said. “It took us some time to adopt it, to train, and then get used to it, and so any officer now that wears a body-worn camera doesn’t want to leave the station without it because it’s a tool that both protects and aids in their duties as a police officer.”
Now, the department is heading into new territory, by using virtual reality to train police officers in various scenarios, including responding to people experiencing special needs, substance abuse, mental illness, or domestic violence. The technology also includes simulator training for firearms and tasers.
Also on Wednesday, just before the announcement of funding for body-worn cameras, the Providence Police Department and Mayor Jorge O. Elorza held a demonstration of new virtual reality technology from AXON.
“This is real life training scenarios on how to best interact with the community, and more importantly, how to de-escalate situations and support those individuals in crisis that we deal with on a daily basis,” said Chief Hugh T. Clements Jr. “I think our officers have a lot of real life experiences out there, but the training and the repetitive, interactive training is helpful. ... There’s an opportunity to get immediate feedback on what you did really well, what you may have done differently, and what you flat-out got wrong. And with that repetitive training, it will allow for better outcomes in the community.”
This story has been updated to add a response from nonprofit organizations concerned with government transparency.