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RI State Police troopers on track for body cams by year’s end

Target 12

SCITUATE, R.I. (WPRI) – For the first time in its history, the Rhode Island State Police is preparing to implement a body-worn camera system for a majority of troopers.

The agency is also returning to an in-car camera system that it abandoned in 2006, according to the final report of a six-month pilot program reviewed by Target 12.

State Police Superintendent Col. James Manni said about 155 troopers will be outfitted with the cameras — with roughly the same number of cameras going into cruisers – potentially by the end of the year.

The report found the Rhode Island State Police is just one of three such agencies in the country – along with New Hampshire and New York – that do not have either a body-worn or in-car camera system.

“Now is the time,” Manni said. “We cannot be on an island alone here.”

The pilot program included “19 volunteer members from the patrol and detective bureaus,” and ran through February, according to the report authored by Maj. Laurie Ludovici. The research included a series of poll questions measuring the volunteers’ attitudes on the camera system.

The survey found “an increase in the member’s belief that citizens would be less likely to file a complain against a member wearing the camera.” But it also found an increased concern that the cameras would be used for disciplinary actions, cause additional stress or distract from daily tasks.

“Let’s face it — I don’t know really anyone in any line of work that would like to have a camera on them and follow them in their day-to-day activities,” Manni said. “If you asked me that 30-plus years ago, I may have thought, ‘Why do we need this?’ But times have changed a lot in that 30-plus years.”

Manni – who was sworn in as colonel in 2019 – said he has seen attitudes toward body cameras shift in the last two years. “These troopers recognize that their credibility is at stake sometimes,” he said.

In a statement to Target 12, the Rhode Island Troopers Association – the labor union that represents the agency’s troopers, sergeants and corporals – declined to take a stance on body cameras.

“The officers, and all members of RITA understand and appreciate transparency and accountability, and firmly stand for these principles,” the statement said. “A consistent concern regarding the camera systems in other state police agencies has been the added responsibilities for maintenance, storage, categorization, and other extensive time-related requirements of the system.”

Union leaders also raised concerns about the cost of the program, citing “a depleted and aging fleet” and arguing that troopers are already “doing more with less.” And they pointed to “an overall benefit package that is significantly less than our neighboring states, which has adversely affected our retention and recruitment.”

The union contract expired in October, and negotiations between RITA and the state are expected to begin soon.

Manni said the camera system would not be used to enforce disciplinary action on troopers for minor violations like “if they don’t have their stetsons on.”

“That’s not the purpose of the body-worn cameras,” he said. “It’s to protect the public, to protect them, to protect the agency.”

‘Bumps in the road’

The pilot program tested two camera systems, one by Axon and the other by WatchGuard, both private companies. Each provided equipment and training “free of charge” during the test drive. Troopers reported pros and cons on each system, including the interface on one, which resulted in “accidental recordings of relief breaks or private telephone conversations.”

Manni acknowledged there will be “bumps in the road” with whatever system they choose in the coming months, but said they would implement a training program that would be folded into the state police academy for new recruits.

Whatever company is chosen, the cost won’t be cheap.

Manni said the agency has estimated a five-year cost of $2.5 million for equipment and media storage — each company would provide cloud storage for the video — plus additional staff to manage the program. The report said the agency would need to add at least three new employees: a part-time assistant attorney and full-time paralegal to “assist with the processing of anticipated Access to Public Records Act records requests,” and a full-time information technology professional.

Manni said the agency, with help from the attorney general’s office, is applying for federal grant money this month, but will need additional funding from the state budget.

“We’ve spoken to the governor about this; we do anticipate some type of funding that will be needed,” Manni said, adding that he is meeting with General Assembly leaders as well. “It’s not a cheap cost, but once again we cannot afford not to do this.”

‘We must do this’

Along with the technology come questions about the policies around body cameras. Who will wear them? When do they get activated? How are public records requests handled? And when does the video get released?

Both Manni and Attorney General Peter Neronha said there is no question video from body-worn and in-car camera systems are a public record subject to the state’s Access to Public Records Act. But Neronha acknowledged there is often tension between the level of public interest in an incident that was caught on video and an ongoing investigation.

“I don’t want to be in a situation we’re putting something out there too quickly,” Neronha said last week on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers. “I’m not talking months, but a matter of days or a weeks. I want to make sure if I have a case, I have a case I can defend and get a good result.”

Still, Neronha and Manni said there may be circumstances – like a use-of-force incident that has a community on edge – where they would release a video quickly.

“I think it is very important that if there is an issue that occurs somewhere in this state that is – you used the term ‘tinderbox’ – that we would really need to look at releasing that video sooner rather than later,” Manni said.

The state police examined several policies of state and local agencies that have a camera program in place, including New Jersey, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Providence, the latter of which started using body cams in 2017. Manni said his agency is leaning toward the wording used in New Jersey and Providence.

Manni was a trooper when the agency used an in-car camera system, which began in 1999 and ended seven years later. He said the technology became outdated and too costly. But considering the climate and the tension between law enforcement and the community they serve, Manni said it’s time to restart the program.

“I’ve been in law enforcement for nearly four decades now, and yes, absolutely, times have changed,” he said. “There is no secret that there is a general mistrust right now in 2021 for law enforcement agencies across the country. We cannot afford not to do this. We must do this.”

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter at 12 News, and the host of Newsmakers. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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