Within two years, Johnston's front-line police officers will likely be equipped with body-worn cameras

‘Another layer of transparency’

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If a new state program is successful, within two years every frontline police officer in the Ocean State will be equipped with a body-worn camera.

Johnston Police Chief Joseph P. Razza welcomes the technology and looks forward to the program’s implementation.

“I think it will improve our interactions with the public,” Razza said Monday in his office at Johnston Police Headquarters. “I’ve talked to many officers here, and I think they will be very accepting. Body cameras can only promote public trust, increase an overall level of transparency and improve interactions with the public.”

In June, Rhode Island legislative and law enforcement leaders announced an innovative statewide program to put body-worn cameras on every frontline police officer and supervisor.

The program, introduced at the request of Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Neronha and sponsored by state Sen. Jonathon Acosta (D-Dist. 16, Central Falls, Pawtucket) and state Rep. José Batista (D-Dist. 12, Providence), aims to equip around 1,700 uniformed patrol officers, in every Rhode Island municipal police department and the State Police, with body-worn cameras over the next 12-18 months.

“I’m all for it,” Razza said. “The biggest hurdle has been the funding.”

The 2021-22 state budget details funding potential for the program.

According to McKee’s Press Secretary Alana O'Hare, the budget “signed by the Governor last week … provides $15 million over five years for the program.”

Essentially, the state plans to foot the bill to get every Rhode Island police department wired for video.

“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,” Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee said in June. “I am proud to be part of a collaborative initiative that will help foster strong, positive community-police relations throughout the state.”

The governor’s office touted the program as the first of its kind in the nation.

“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?’” Neronha said. “If we cannot answer those questions, justice remains elusive, for everyone. 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.”

Razza expects the program may equip around 40 Johnston police officers with body-worn cameras, covering all of the department’s frontline patrolmen and supervisors.

“Hopefully sooner than later,” Razza said. “We’re hoping it will cover everybody in the patrol division.”

The statewide program “grew out of a year of intensive research, planning and testing of body-worn cameras by the Rhode Island State Police, the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association and the Attorney General’s Office,” according to a press release from the governor’s office. “The program’s comprehensive approach aims to equip all uniformed patrol officers in the state, provides 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.”

Although the cameras are relatively inexpensive, averaging around $300-400 each, video storage technology can be cost-prohibitive, Razza said.

“It will depend on funding,” Razza said. “It’s not clear what each department will receive. It should be that everyone in traffic and community policing gets their own camera, uploads the video at the end of each shift, and charges the camera between shifts.”

A diverse set of advocacy groups, from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association, have endorsed the plan.

“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 (toward) bridging historic feelings of distrust between communities of color and police. This program works toward achieving that goal.”

Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association Executive Director Sid Wordell and President Richard Ramsay released a joint statement lauding the program launch.

“To be clear, the police chiefs of Rhode Island support the immediate, broad and long-term implementation of a body-worn camera program,” Wordell and Ramsay said in their statement. “It is the right thing to do, and we are grateful to our elected leaders for their support. Cameras should be the new, permanent, normal.”

Ramsay also serves as Chief of the West Greenwich Police Department.

“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,” Ramsay said. “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 on making sure this program is equitable, impactful and sustainable.”

The Attorney General’s Office has pledged $1 million toward funding the program. State budgeters hope to “maximize available federal funding and efficiently use state dollars” to fund the rest.

The program is expected to require around $3 million per year in state funding to ensure all Rhode Island departments can purchase and deploy the cameras for the 5-year, state-supported implementation period.

After five years, municipalities will need to budget for future maintenance of the program.

“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,” said state Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio. “Body cameras are a practical, effective means to improving police accountability and their relationships with the communities they serve.”

Statewide policing policies will also need to follow, so departments have a model to enforce in each department.

“For example, we’re governed by a model use of force policy,” Razza said. “We’ll be looking for a policy on cameras.”

A statewide policy on body-worn cameras will give departments the guidance they need to further implement the program.

The Attorney General’s Office, Department of Public Safety and RIPCA will likely craft the policy, with “key input from community members and stakeholders through formal, public rule-making process,” according to the governor’s office.

“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.”

Razza said each department will ultimately face a choice.

“This isn’t a mandatory program,” Razza said. “But I don’t see why any police chiefs wouldn’t (opt in).”

The state’s Attorney General expects body-worn cameras will help prosecute law-breakers, even those who may be wearing badges.

“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,” Neronha said. “The statewide body-worn camera program … gives us an opportunity to do just that.”

Johnston town officials have, so far, been unanimous in their support for the program.

“Obviously this adds another layer of transparency to the public servants who serve and protect our residents,” said Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena. “Obviously I trust our police officers. They’re out there everyday. They don’t have an easy job. They leave their house every day and don’t know if they’ll come home at night.”

Polisena credited state legislators for their efforts to fund the program, rather than passing an “unfunded mandate.”

“Five years gives us a little breathing room,” Polisena said. “When the time comes that cities and towns need to take up the expense, they’ll be ready for it. One year wouldn’t help us. But five years gives us a chance to maintain the cameras and maintain the system. Once the police have them, it will be very difficult not to have them.”

Polisena is optimistic a five-year launch for the program will give cities and towns the time they need to maintain it over the long run.

“Now it will be up to us to look for alternative funding sources,” he said. “We have five years to do it. We can start putting money away.”

Access to the footage from body-worn cameras, however, may be a future source of contention between the public, the media, and the police.

“There will be times when they can release stuff and times when they can’t release stuff,” Policena said. “I think it’s good the state took the initiative. I think it will be great. I think they’ll store it in the cloud, and it will be done for us. I trust my chief and deputy chief that they’ll put policies and procedures in place. (The program) definitely adds that layer of transparency to the public. It will be beneficial for both the men and women of the police department and the people they serve.”

When he first heard of the body-worn camera program, Polisena went to his department command staff and the town’s frontline officers, to seek their opinions.

“I didn’t get one negative comment from my officers, chief or deputy chief,” Polisena said. “With cameras (on each officer), when an interaction is made with people, it’s going to be the facts; not he said, she said, we said.”

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