RI seeks to equip all police officers with body cameras

Two departments in the small state currently require body cameras, though others have had pilot programs

By Katherine Gregg
Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — In his turn at the microphone on Wednesday, Attorney General Peter Neronha said again and again: "Don't tell me what happened, show me."

In his own turn, Rep. Jose Batista – who lost his day job as director of a civilian police-review board for making a video public – hailed a newly announced $3-million state commitment to body cameras as a critical "first step" in holding police more accountable for their actions.

"There remains so much work to do, but it is an important step,'' said Batista, a freshman Providence Democrat and one-time public defender who is pushing for more extensive changes in the way police are investigated – and disciplined, when warranted – for alleged misconduct and disciplined, when warranted.

Batista and Neronha spoke at the official announcement of a program to provide money, through the reworked state budget that is expected to surface on Thursday, for every city and town police department that opts in to buy body cameras.

Only two police departments, Providence and Newport, currently require the use of body cameras, though others, including East Providence, have had pilot programs, according to Sid Wordell, the director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, who estimates the cost at $100 per camera, per month, per officer.

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The 2021 legislative session is winding down.

But House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi assured reporters that the body-camera-funding commitment is not the end of this year's behind-the-scenes talks about the more extensive reforms that Batista and state Sen. Jonathan Acosta, D- Central Falls, are seeking.

Among them: the addition of civilians to the police-dominated review panels that investigate misconduct allegations.

Wednesday's press conference at the State House focused on body cameras. The big unanswered question: When the public will get to see the videos?

In developing policies that answer that question, Neronha said: "My goal both as ... the overseer of open government and also as someone who will be advising police ... would be: 'as soon as possible.'

"The only thing that will cause hesitancy is if we believe there is a case to be prosecuted and releasing that video would damage the prospects of a successful prosecution,'' the attorney general said. "We don't want witnesses testifying at a trial based on what they saw on Channel 10 or 12 or 6, or on a website, rather than what they told us when investigators show up at [their] door.

"Even there, our goal is to complete our investigation as quickly as possible so we that we can push that body camera footage [out],'' he said. "Our goal is not to sit on it. ... We're talking about a matter of days, not months or years."

Neronha cited the advice his office received from the Rhode Island Supreme Court's ethics panel about the release of of videos from body-worn cameras before trial. The response, in sum: state prosecutors can release the videos but cannot comment on them, beyond the facts.

In Rhode Island, the issue erupted when Batista, in his former role as head of the Providence police civilian oversight panel, decided on his own to release video of a city police officer striking a handcuffed Black man. The officer, Sgt. Joseph Hanley, was charged with assault.

Hanley sought to get the case dismissed, based on the pretrial publicity surrounding the release of the video. But District Court Judge Brian Goldman found Hanley guilty of simple assault for kicking, punching, and kneeling on the head of Rishod Gore in April 2020. Hanley is appealing.

"When we think about practical, effective solutions to improve police accountability and their relationships with the communities they serve, body cameras are a common-sense answer,'' Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said Wednesday. "They increase public trust and confidence in law enforcement."

"Data shows a tremendous reduction in use-of-force incidents ... [and] an 87.5% reduction in citizen complaints against officers wearing body cams,'' said Ruggerio, citing some of the findings of a study of the city of Rialto, in the Inland Empire area of Southern California.

"Footage can aid in independent verification of events and equitable outcomes, improving police training opportunities, and development of new law enforcement strategies,'' he said.

A "fact sheet" distributed by Gov. Dan McKee's office described the aim this way: equip all of Rhode Island's 1,700 uniformed police officers with body-worn cameras within 12 to 18 months; provide state funding, purchasing [and technical] assistance to participating police departments to buy and operate body worn cameras; develop statewide policies.

“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. “Body-worn cameras ... 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."

Others taking part in the news conference included: Col. James Manni, the head of the Rhode Island State Police; West Greenwich Police Chief James Ramsay, president of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association; Ralph Ezovski, representing the International Brotherhood of Police Officers; and Jim Vincent, president of the Providence NAACP.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: RI seeks to equip all police officers with body cameras

(c)2021 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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