PROVIDENCE – State and law enforcement leaders recently announced a new initiative to put body-worn cameras on every uniformed police officer and supervisor in the state over the next 12-18 months. When enacted, the program would be the first of its kind in the nation.
“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 [Rhode Island State Police] Colonel Manni for coming together and committing to this effective investment in public safety in Rhode Island.”
The initiative will be introduced at the request of the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office and sponsored by Senator Johnathon Acosta and Representative Jose Batista and is designed to equip approximately 1,700 of the state’s uniformed patrol officers, spanning every police department in Rhode Island and the state police, with body-worn cameras.
“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.
“I agree with the initiative,” said Narragansett Police Chief Sean Corrigan. “Prior to 2020, the cost-benefit analysis was focused on examining the demand in the local jurisdiction, local police relations, the number of complaints the department receives, and the extent of liability type issues such as excessive use of force complaints.”
“For a community like Narragansett, we have strong local support, no call to acquire cameras, very few complaints, and very few use of force incidents at all, and very rarely do we have a complaint about the use of force,” he continued. “Since the national call for increased police accountability, every department knows that they are just one incident away from being in the national spotlight so there is a desire to protect the town and the officers by having that footage. Also, officers are calling for this technology because they find themselves frequently being video recorded by citizens and with BWC they are at least ensured to have all of the footage for the incident and to capture the behavior of subject officers are dealing with.”
East Greenwich Chief of Police Stephen Brown said he and the department “totally agreed” with the plan, adding that the cost of such had been a previous hurdle.
“The financing was the only thing preventing us from doing this,” he said. “Now that the state is following up and assisting departments with funding, we are very much looking forward to implementing [body-worn cameras].”
North Kingstown Chief of Police Patrick Flanagan agreed.
“We’re all for it if [the state can provide adequate funding],” he said. “I would be interested in looking into it if that’s the case, but I would be concerned there might be a caveat down the road where the police department has to assume all the costs. That’s my only concern, and I don’t see an answer to that in what’s been put out so far. I’m fully for it if [the state] is going to fund it fully. Right now, it’s still in that infant stage.”
Flanagan also said the Town of North Kingstown was recently included on a shortlist of municipalities that would be eligible for a joint grant toward the initiative between the state and the U.S. Justice Department. The town was selected for its size, said Flanagan.
“North Kingstown is one of the towns that would be applying for the grant jointly with seven or eight other towns,” he said.
In Narragansett, the department would receive body-worn cameras for 28 officers. In East Greenwich, approximately 26 frontline police officers would receive body cameras under the initiative, according to Brown. About 37 officers would be equipped in North Kingstown, said Flanagan. Currently, no officers in Narragansett, East Greenwich or North Kingstown use body-worn cameras. Prior to the initiative, only officers in the municipalities of Providence, East Providence, Cranston and Newport utilize the technology.
“The pros are self-evident in helping with contentious incidents and there is also the benefit that research shows it improves the behavior of subjects officers deal with as well as improving officer professionalism,” said Corrigan. “Although I am clearly biased I believe my officer's professionalism is of the highest order but the people they sometimes must deal with are somewhat less than cordial. This will be a great tool to highlight the great work of my officers.”
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.”
Funding for the initiative, which will go toward the purchase of the cameras, storage of video data and personnel costs for review of footage, will amount to about a $3 million annual cost to implement a “five-year, state-supported period,” according to a press release from the governor’s office detailing the goal.
Creation of policies around the technology and law enforcement’s use of it is outlined in the legislation. The policies will be developed by the Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Public Safety, in consultation with Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association and with “key input” from community members and stakeholders through formal, public rule-making process, according to the state. 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.
“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 Rhode Island State Police is currently participating in a pilot program as part of research for statewide, municipal implementation.