Providence body cams get a stern test with police-involved shooting

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — As last Thursday’s pursuit of a white pick-up truck weaved into Providence, no one could imagine the case and all its complexities would also be the first test for the city’s police body cameras.

Officers began training with the devices last month, and so far about half the patrol division is wearing the cameras after taking part in weekly sessions at the Providence police academy. Target 12 had requested to observe a body camera training session weeks before the deadly pursuit, and the department granted access to a class held this week.

Three of the officers who responded to the end of the pursuit involving 32-year-old Joseph Santos were equipped, but there were issues with two of the cameras. Nine Providence police officers and Rhode Island State Police troopers fired 43 shots at the truck, killing Santos and wounding his passenger, 37-year-old Christine Demers.

“We’re ready for all the criticisms. You didn’t engage. The angle was off to the right.” Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare’

Multiple police departments were chasing Santos following a tip that the white truck was transporting Donald Morgan, who was suspected of stealing a state police car. It was later determined that while Santos and Morgan do know each other from a stint in a drug rehabilitation clinic, Morgan was not with Santos at the time of the chase.

Officer Thomas Zincone was wearing a camera for for the first time, and neglected to activate it according to police officials. Officer Chris Ziroli tapped his body camera once, but two taps are required to turn them on.

Officer Matthew McGloin, who is among the officers who fired at the truck, activated his body camera and that clip is part of the investigation into the fatal shooting of Santos and critical injury of his passenger, Christine Demers.

Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare’ said mistakes with activation were not a shock.

“We had three body cams, one was engaged. There was nothing malicious,” Pare’ said. “That’s going to happen. But if officers continue not to engage, then, there will be consequences.”

At the academy, training scenarios include traffic stops, where police say cameras would be activated in almost every case.

But discretion will be allowed with other cases, including sexual assaults.

“He forced himself on me,” a woman acting as a sex crime victim said to an officer, prompting him to turn off the camera.

Officers are also schooled in incidents where people ask not to be recorded, and cases involving informants or undercover officers. Discretion also allows cops to hit the stop button on their cameras.

Not all members of the department are required to wear body cameras. High-ranking officials, like the chief, as well as detectives, will not have to wear them.

The Rhode Island Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has expressed concern that the ability for the officer to choose when they activate the cameras could be used to avoid recording use-of-force cases and other controversial confrontations with the public.

Axon, the manufacturer of the cameras that Providence is contracted to use, includes a feature that would automatically activate the cameras if a gun is fired or a taser is deployed, but Pare’ said the city decided against that option.

“It was an extra cost and we really didn’t think it was needed,” Pare’ said. “Our officers are professionals and we’re confident this will become second nature with training.”

Michael Imondi, president of Providence’s Fraternal Order of Police, said he did not want to comment on the policy and the cameras’ impact until they’ve been in the field longer.

Pare said even though one of the three cameras in the Santos case was activated, the clip will be important in the deadly force investigation.

The video shows the truck tires burning rubber and lurching forward, crashing into cars to the right and in front of it.

The video recorded by Rhode Island Department of Transportation cameras shows a wider, clearer angle of the alleged threat to the officers and vehicles at the scene, but Pare’ said the body cameras will be vital in cases where there is not another angle.

“Not having [that RIDOT video], we have a body-cam that documents the interaction and what we did. So it’s a big help,” Pare’ said.”It protects the police officer more than it hurts the police officer. But it’s something the police officer has to get used to because now you’re being recorded.”

A number of studies reviewed by Target 12 show arrests tend to increase after body cameras are deployed, and complaints against police tend to go down.

For example, Rialto, California, which is about half the size of Providence, use of force claims went down by 59 percent, and citizen complaints by more than 87 percent.

Another change other departments have seen involves an increase in the number of arrests and citations.

Officers were said to be less willing to give someone a break on minor crimes such as traffic violations, since the incident was now recorded.

After body cameras were put in place in Phoenix, Arizona, which is about six times the size of Providence, arrests went up 17 percent.

In Mesa, Arizona, a city about twice the size as Providence, there were 23 percent more citations issued after cameras were deployed.

“I don’t know if we’re going to see a drastic increase in arrests,” Pare’ said. “We had a pilot program with the cameras, and did not notice any additional arrests.”

Another study of note out of Washington D.C. that involved 2,200 officers, showed there were no “statistically significant effects” following the deployment of body cameras.

The cameras were approved by the City Council last December, with a $1.37 million no-bid contract with Taser International. The taxpayer outlay was offset by a $375,000 federal grant. Taser agreed to supply 250 cameras and unlimited data storage for a period of five years.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau