As Providence Police Begin Use Of Body Cameras, Questions Remain

Apr 17, 2017

The Providence Police Department will be the first in Rhode Island to start using body cameras in a couple of weeks. For the most part, the cameras are getting broad support. But the rollout is sparking debate over when and how the cameras and their footage should be used, as well as questions about the costs of running the program.  

The cameras are particularly favored in communities with heavy police interaction like the south side of Providence. That’s where a string of complaints about the use of excessive force were reported last year. Vianella Nuñez is a resident here. She says she’s thankful to have the police watch the neighborhood, but says she doesn’t trust them to always report what happens in interactions with residents.

“They report what’s convenient for them, not all cases, of course,” explained Nuñez.

For this reason, Nuñez says the cameras are a good idea.

“If they have cameras, you can see what happens from beginning to end,” Nuñez explained.

Jim Vincent is head of the NAACP Providence Branch. He says the cameras could help bridge a history of distrust between communities of color and the police.

“I think anything that shows exactly what’s happening from the police, as well as the community’s vantage point, will go a long way at solving some of the contention between the two groups,” said Vincent.

But the NAACP and other supporters of the cameras say take issue with police plans for using the footage.

The body worn cameras were in discussion for almost two years. Providence officials, Providence Police, the ACLU of Rhode Island, the Providence NAACP chapter, and city residents all had a chance to give input on the current proposed 10-page policy.

Other cities that have incorporated the use of body cameras in local policing have also struggled with creating policies to determine how long footage should be stored and creating parameters for when cameras should be stored.  

Marcela Betancur is a policy associate with the ALCU of Rhode Island, and a vocal critic of the current camera policy. Betancur says the policy is too narrow when it comes to releasing footage.

“If any of the shootings that have occurred over the last couple of years would have occurred here in Providence, as it stands- the policy- no one in the public would have had access to that footage in the body cameras,“ said Betancur.

Current policy doesn’t provide any guidelines for when camera footage should be released to members of the public. As it stands, officers would be able to see the footage if it involved a trial they were being asked to testify in. But for residents, footage would be released on a case by case request under Rhode Island’s Access to Public Records Act- a process which could take time.

“Individuals that are either affected by the footage or family members of any deceased person, should have access to the footage as well,” Betancur said.

Betancur and the ACLU are also critical of the fact that officers are not required to have the cameras on at all times. Under the proposed policy, they are only required to turn them on under certain circumstances- like when they suspect someone of participating in illegal activity or they’re in a car chase.

Sergeant Robert Boehm is head of the Providence Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #3, the police union. He argues keeping the cameras on for every interaction might hamper policing.

“Whether it be ‘my neighbor plays loud music at 10 o’clock at night’ all the way to ‘I know of a drug house,’ they’re going to be reluctant to speak to us if we have these cameras on. Especially if they think, or feel, or know if it ever came out that we have these cameras on 24/7,” explained Boehm.

Boehm says he’s open to anything that will bolster community relations but says cameras shouldn’t be a substitute for having more officers in a neighborhood.

If you hire the proper people, you give them the proper training, you put them in the community and build the community’s trust, then these things are not needed,” said Boehm.

But right now Boehm says the Providence Police force is underfunded for training and equipment. He says the department bought the cameras anyway, at a time when resources are tight.

It’s coming at a time when the city says they have to take a look at our pensions. It comes at a time when they say we can’t give you this or that because they have no money,” said Boehm.

The city of Providence won a $300,000 matching grant from the U.S. Department of Justice for the purchase. But the full costs of running the program remain unclear.  Police were originally told by the administration they would have to bring on three additional employees to manage footage, that number has now gone done to one.

During a two-month pilot in 2016 where police were allowed to try two different camera models, only two requests were made for footage. There is no estimate of how many requests for video will be made once 250 officers are equipped with the gear.

Providence Police Chief Colonel Hugh Clements says accounting for costs is all part of the process. And besides the cost, he says he understands other concerns about the program, like the ACLU and the NAACP’s criticism of the department’s current policy for the cameras.

“And hey look, we change policies all the time. Right now we think this policy is very solid and if there needs to be a change for a positive reason somewhere down the line, we will absolutely keep that door open,” said Clements.

The Providence Police Department is one of the biggest in New England to incorporate body cameras, and other cities will be keeping their eyes on the roll out.