PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island could soon join a growing list of states where the use of police body cameras becomes universal – or nearly so, depending on how many communities opt in.
Touting body cameras as a boon for police accountability and solidarity between law enforcement and the public, Gov. Dan McKee announced Wednesday that he is allocating some $15 million to supply 1,700 state and local police officers with body cameras for the next five years. The measure will be part of McKee’s proposed budget, supporting legislation introduced by State Rep. Jose Batista of Providence and State Sen. Jonathan Acosta of Central Falls, and comes after months of study by the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association and the Office of Attorney General Peter Neronha.
McKee made the announcement at the State House, where he was flanked by a throng of leaders representing the legislature, civil rights interests and law enforcement – all of whom expressed support for the move.
“I’ve said that now is the time to bring law enforcement and our communities together in a positive way, and this program helps us do just that, building trust, accountability and transparency between our police officers and the people that they protect and serve,” McKee said. “As a former mayor I know how important that relationship, that trust, is.”
Trust is an essential component of community policing, and body cameras can foster that bond, said McKee, adding that as the mayor of Cumberland, working alongside the late Police Chief John Partington, “I witnessed it first-hand.”
Legislation introduced by Batista and Acosta was already circulating in the General Assembly before McKee’s announcement, but it was unclear where the money would come from to pay for enough body cameras to equip every police officer in the 39 cities and towns, plus the Rhode Island State Police.
“Putting it in the budget is the mechanism for funding it,” said House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi, who was solidly behind the proposal.
Shekarchi was one of several speakers who portrayed the body camera initiative as a major team effort, encompassing both chambers of the legislature, law enforcement, the attorney general and the governor’s office, as well as community stakeholders.
“We think it’s a practical, effective solution to improve police accountability and their relationships with the communities that they serve,” added Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. “This is a widely supported initiative on all fronts.”
In communities where body cameras provide “independent verification” of police actions, studies have shown officers use force less frequently, Ruggerio said. Complaints of police misconduct also decline and are resolved more equitably.
Nationwide, the use of body cameras has become substantially more common since the May 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, one of whom has since been convicted of Floyd’s murder. The episode, caught on cellphone video by a bystander, demonstrated how camera footage can sway public opinion and judicial proceedings among minorities and other groups that often feel disenfranchised or marginalized.
“There is a strained and broken relationship between law enforcement and communities,” said Rep. Acosta. “We have a paradox, where the communities that I’m talking about need and rely on law enforcement but many of them are also terrified of law enforcement.”
He said he sees police body cameras as a “very, very small step” toward leveling the playing field in situations where citizens are wrongfully accused of crimes and sometimes physically mistreated in the process.
“We now have the technology to at least address the ‘what they said versus what you said’ problem,” the senator said. “This is just a tool. We still have work to do. There’s going to be things we see on video we’re not necessarily going to be proud of, on the community side and the law enforcement side. There’s going to be a lot of uncomfortable conversations that we have to have, but in the end we’ll be moving forward.”
Seven states have made police body cameras mandatory – most of them since Floyd’s death, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. They include Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Carolina.
Two cities in Rhode Island use police body cameras – Providence and Newport – and a third, Warwick, is running a pilot program with them.
Jim Vincent, president of the Rhode Island Chapter of the NAACP, hailed McKee’s announcement as “huge in terms of the civil rights community.”
“Our elected and community leaders should be working to bridge historic feelings of distrust between communities of color and police,” he said. “This program works toward achieving that goal.”
Ralph Ezovski, president of the International Association of Police Officers, said, “We as a union recognize there is work to be done and this is an excellent beginning.”
West Greenwich Police Chief Richard Ramsay, president of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, said the organization believes the initiative “is the right thing to do and we are grateful to our elected officials for their support.”
In addition to the funds that McKee has committed to the program, about $3 million in the next fiscal year, Attorney General Neronha said he’s pledged an extra $1 million in federal forfeiture funds, and State Police Supt. James Manni said he will try to track down additional resources in the form of federal justice assistance grants.
“Body-worn cameras are an essential piece of equipment, critical to building public trust and creating transparency in this profession – law enforcement,” Manni said. “We cannot afford not to have these.”
One of the state’s earliest advocates of police body cameras, Neronha said there is unprecedented demand for video at all levels of criminal prosecution.
“Don’t tell me what happened – show me,” Neronha said. “Grand juries, juries and the public want to see what happened. That’s why body cameras are so important. They’re important because it’s an opportunity to hold law enforcement accountable in those instances where it’s necessary. It’s also an opportunity to show the public that police officers – as I believe they do many, many times, if not most of the time – did it the right way.”
While some states have made body cameras compulsory police equipment, state lawmakers are proposing to make funding for body cameras available to communities that want them.
But Neronha said no community would be eligible for funding without first signing on to a uniform statewide policy governing how the equipment must be used. Those policies have not yet been developed and it’s anticipated that hammering them out will take 12-18 months.
One question that remains unanswered is exactly how long state prosecutors might withhold the release of police video to the public. The records would be regarded much like any other public media covered by the Access to Public Records Act. It makes most government-produced records openly accessible to anyone who wants them – with some exceptions, including materials that are part of an ongoing law enforcement investigation.
Neronha said his goal would be to release police video as quickly as possible. Basically, that means video would be released as soon as it’s plain that an investigatory proceeding in which it plays a role would not be imperiled by the release of the images. He’d also have to be satisfied that the release of the material would not potentially taint a jury presiding over a case in court.
Ultimately, Neronha said, the goal would be to release the material “within a matter of days, not months or years.” But in practice, the decisions will likely be made on a case-by-case basis, balancing the public’s right to know with the capacity to administer justice.
“It’s not as simple as ‘the public wants to see, here it is,’” said Neronha.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo