PROVIDENCE, R.I (WPRI) — Proponents of body-worn cameras are doing a victory lap after the city won a federal grant to partially fund a program to outfit 250 officers with cameras.
The program’s future isn’t set in stone; the city needs to match the $375 thousand grant, and the funding source is undetermined. But Police Chief Col. Hugh Clements says he’s confident the money will come through, and all patrol officers will be wearing cameras within a few months.
“We know body-worn cameras have been effective in improving community relations, trust, transparency,” Col. Clements said Tuesday. “They’ve also been effective in reducing crime.”
The ACLU of Rhode Island quickly raised concerns about the cameras, pointing out potential issues with the police department’s policy for use of the cameras.
In a statement, the ACLU said in part: “…the policy we understand is currently in use by the Providence Police Department will serve only to shroud body camera footage in secrecy and raise serious questions as to the discretion used by law enforcement in activating the cameras.”
Eyewitness News obtained the body camera policy, which does require officers to manually turn on the cameras in certain situations. The cameras are not automatically recording during the officer’s shift.
According to the policy, officers will be required to turn on the camera in any situation where someone is suspected of a crime, during all vehicle stops and pursuits, during any situation involving use of force, building searches, and while taking someone into custody. The policy also says officers should use the cameras during any situation that “escalates and becomes adversarial,” and whenever they deem it beneficial to record an encounter.
The policy bans officers from recording while dealing with cases of child abuse or victims of sex crimes, and when a witness to a crime requests not to be recorded.
The ACLU takes issue with the perceived discretion. Hillary Davis, a policy associate, said other police departments require officers to turn on the camera as soon as they are dispatched to a call, rather than making the decision to turn it on during an encounter.
Col. Clements said he would consider making changes.
“The policy is finished,” he said. “However, I would always entertain the idea of tweaking the policy as we move along.”
Clements said the department will err on the side of transparency when it comes to releasing the video to the public, but requests will go through the formal Access to Public Records process and will be handled on a case-by-case basis.
“Our mindset is to be transparent and allow people to view the videos,” Clements said.
Sgt. Bob Boehm, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the union is generally supportive of the cameras, and he said the ten officers who participated in a summer pilot program didn’t have any problems.
He said the union would be looking over the camera policy and determining their stance on individual issues, such as whether officers should be permitted to review the video before writing a police report.
He also acknowledged that body-worn cameras don’t always tell the whole story.
“The camera is not going to pick up what the officer is feeling,” Sgt. Boehm said. Not to mention, he added, the camera could be showing one view while the officer is looking in another direction.
Col. Clements says the cameras won’t be used to constantly monitor officers, but instead to review cases where a complaint has been made.
“This isn’t a game of ‘gotcha,’” Clements said. “We’re not going to be reviewing tapes at random. When there is a complaint, we’ll look at the tapes and try to figure out what happened.”
Video will be stored for 90 days, unless it needs to be archived for an ongoing case or complaint. The department plans to choose an unlimited cloud storage plan for the video, Clements said.
Emily Crowell, a spokesperson for Mayor Jorge Elorza, says an RFP (Request for Proposal) will go out for potential bidders to win the contract for the body cameras. The city will be working on a plan to come up with the money to match the federal grant in order for the program to move forward.