Providence police to begin training with body cameras

Photo credit: Providence Police Department.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence police officers are on track to begin wearing body cameras by the end of the year, the department announced Wednesday.

Officers are set to begin training for eight to 12 weeks with the new Axon 2 body cameras this month, according to a spokesperson for the department. All uniformed patrolmen will be required to wear the cameras, but detectives and other high-ranking members of the department will not be asked to use them.

“The Providence Police Department is committed to enhancing the safety of our community and maintaining an atmosphere of transparency and trust,” Chief Col. Hugh Clements said in statement. “These cameras will provide increased accountability for our officers as well as the community.”

The square-shaped cameras will be worn on officers’ chests. All encounters where there is at least reasonable suspicion that a person has been involved in criminal activity will require the use of the camera. All vehicle pursuits and stops, attempts to take someone into custody, building searches and public interactions that become adversarial must also be recorded.

Once the cameras are activated, they record both video and sound. Prior to being activated, they are considered buffering, which means they record the most recent 30 seconds of just video.

Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare said he is expecting there to be a learning curve as officers make turning on the camera part of their daily routine.

“There are going to be times that they forget to push the recorder on,” Pare said. “If officers deliberately don’t engage it, then we’ll deal with them as well.”

The ACLU had previously expressed concerns about the manual activation, which they said could possibly result in an use-of-force incident not being recorded.

Video will be stored in the cloud, and footage that isn’t part of an active complaint or prosecution will be deleted after 90 days. Before that time, members of the public who have a complaint against an officer will be able to go to the police department to review the video.

Video footage will also be subject to the state’s open records law. Pare said videos released to the public could be redacted or faces could be blurred, and police would decide whether or not to release video using the same standards used for releasing police reports.

“We think it’s a win-win,” Pare said, referring to the ability for both police and community members to have a digital record of interactions.

Col. Clements said reception has been mixed among the rank-and-file, with some officers enthusiastic about the program and others more reluctant.

“The reluctancy from police officers changes when that camera comes to their assistance in defending their honor,” Pare said. “And then everyone wants it.”

Sgt. Bob Boehm, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the union is “open” to the cameras and is waiting to see how the implementation goes before throwing its full support behind the program.

He said he considers the cameras a tool for police, but he said the video will not always provide a full picture of what happens in a particular incident. For example, he said, an officer could turn his or her head and see a threat that the camera doesn’t capture while it’s facing forward.

“People who are anti-police are going to be anti-police no matter what the video shows,” Boehm said.

Earlier this year, the City Council approved a five-year, $1.37-million no-bid contract for TASER International to provide the department with 250 body cameras and unlimited data storage for the length of the agreement. The cameras will be partially funded through a $375,000 federal grant.

“Body-worn cameras are an innovative tool that will enhance the community policing done in Providence,” Mayor Jorge Elorza said in a statment. “By becoming one of the first police departments in the region to implement them, we are ahead of the curve and once again leading the way in innovative policing.”

In a presentation to the City Council Finance Committee earlier this year, Capt. Dean Isabella explained that some of the scenarios where cameras won’t be activated include encounters that aren’t directly related to official police activities, when potential witnesses request anonymity, when dealing with victims of sex crimes or child abuse and when the identities of undercover officers would be comprised.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan