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Rhode Island announces first-of-its-kind program to put body cameras on every uniformed police officer

Christian Fernsby |
State leaders and law enforcement leaders came together Wednesday to announce an innovative statewide program to put body-worn cameras on every frontline police officer and supervisor in Rhode Island.

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The statewide body-worn camera program, which will be introduced at the request of the Attorney General and sponsored by Senator Jonathon Acosta and Representative José Batista, is designed to equip approximately 1,700 of Rhode Island's uniformed patrol officers—across every police department and the Rhode Island State Police—with body-worn cameras over the next 12-18 months.

The legislation will establish the duties and responsibilities of how the program will be funded and will require a statewide policy regarding the use of the body-worn cameras.

"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 Governor Dan 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 Attorney General Peter F. 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."

The statewide body-worn camera 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.

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.

The Attorney General's Office began developing this plan in fall 2020—researching best practices, engaging with body camera vendors, and working closely with the Rhode Island Police Chiefs' Association (RIPCA) and the Rhode Island State Police (RISP) to explore the opportunity with departments across the state. The body-worn camera initiative was part of the RIPCA's Twenty for 2020 Campaign, an effort to ensure the public's faith in its police departments by redoubling a statewide focus on training, transparency, communication and human rights.

"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 J. Ruggerio.

"I am pleased that, working with Governor McKee, Attorney General Neronha and Senate President Ruggerio, 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 K. Joseph Shekarchi. "The use of body cameras provides accountability and transparency, which are very important in law enforcement, and also builds trust within our communities."

"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 Acosta.

"The funding, acquisition and public access to body-worn cameras is a centerpiece of criminal justice reform in 2021," said Representative Batista. "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."

"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 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (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."

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 5-year, state-supported implementation period—giving cities and towns the runway they need to budget for future maintenance.

The commitment of funding will be in the budget to be considered by the House Finance Committee this Thursday night.

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 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.

"Last year the Rhode Island Police Chiefs' Association launched a statewide initiative called the Twenty for 2020 campaign. 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," said West Greenwich Police Chief Richard Ramsay, President of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association.

"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 M. 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."

The adoption of statewide body-worn cameras has been a priority in Rhode Island that was underscored by the murder of George Floyd last year and its capture on video. Since then, the Attorney General's Office has been working closely with RIPCA to research all aspects of implementation, as RISP and other departments piloted body-worn camera systems. This work was informed by the experience of the Providence and Newport Police Departments, which have both adopted body-worn camera programs over the past several years.

Earlier this year, RISP conducted extensive testing of two different body-worn camera systems as well as in-car systems with an eye toward broad implementation in the coming fiscal year. RIPCA has designated a committee to work on this initiative that includes Executive Director Sid Wordell, Warwick Police Chief Bradford Connor, Narragansett Police Chief Sean Corrigan, and Little Compton Police Chief Scott Raynes.

In the last 12 months, the Attorney General's Office has taken substantial steps in the areas of law enforcement and criminal justice reform, including creating a civil rights team and designating civil rights liaison officers in every police department; significantly updating and expanding the Attorney General's use-of-force review protocol; and advocating for critical reforms to existing civil rights and hate crimes legislation.

"I am thankful to the commitment our state and municipal law enforcement partners have shown in this initiative," said Attorney General Neronha. "Now, thanks to the leadership of Governor McKee, President Ruggerio, and Speaker Shekarchi, this plan will be introduced as legislation, debated, and hopefully enacted at the end of this session so that we can begin getting these cameras on officers throughout Rhode Island."

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