2015-05-07 / Front Page

Police Cameras Proposed

By Olga Enger

Amid rising tensions between communities and police departments across the country, a Newport City Councilor would like to explore the idea of placing cameras on local officers.

John Florez drafted a resolution expected to appear on the May 27 docket that directs the city to “investigate possible funding sources for a one year pilot program for the use of body cameras and report back to the council on or before June 30.” Florez said that although cameras are a controversial topic today, they will someday be the norm for police departments across the country.

“We are at a tipping point,” said Florez, referencing recent incidents such as the Baltimore and Ferguson riots. During a press conference held Wednesday, May 6, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake promised their police department would have body cameras by the end of the year.

Although Rhode Island police departments have used cameras on cruisers in the past, no department in the state has leveraged body cameras, which some say provide greater accountability and flexibility.

“It comes down to how I view the position of the City Council,” explained Florez. “It is our duty to look out for the best interest of Newporters, to be proactive about these matters. Police officers are members of the community, hired by the community. They are allowed to carry guns. We have the technology to ensure accountability. If we have the technology to ensure that, then it is my responsibility to make sure that happens.” He added cameras may also prevent frivolous lawsuits and complaints.

His fellow councilors have not embraced his resolution, he admitted.

“Frankly, there is apprehension,” he said.

Councilor Marco Camacho declined to comment on the resolution as-is, but said he would like to add amendments to offer a broader reform package, including street cameras, digital traffic enforcement, and GPS chips for police, which would all flow into a combined digital operations center.

Florez said he welcomes amendments to his resolution, but would like to keep the scope focused on police body cameras.

The councilor estimated a pilot program of 10 body cameras would cost the city $13,000 annually. However, other communities have experienced hidden costs, such as pricey data storage and maintenance. Some experts estimate data storage costs alone may reach up to $100,000 for an average police department.

“What price do you put on accountability?” asked Florez. He added there may be money available to help offset the costs. Pending approval by Congress, the Obama administration will be granting $20 million to local police departments as the first part of a three-year, $75 million body camera program.

Despite the lack of support, Florez said he believes the council will come around in time.

“Here is what is going to happen. Once councilors see the level of support throughout the community, the stories in the paper, that the vast majority of our community wants this, they will support it,” he suggested. “The African American and Hispanic communities really want it.”

The Newport Democratic City Committee (NDCC) has issued a public statement in support of the resolution.

“The time has come for municipal and state police departments to adopt the use of body cameras as a matter of public policy,” wrote NDCC Chair Bud Clement Cicilline in a prepared statement. “The fatal incidents in Ferguson, North Charleston, and Baltimore, while each carrying their own unique circumstances, make the case that different outcomes might have transpired if police had been required to use body cameras in their interaction with alleged perpetrators.”

Cicilline added while racially profiling is publicly condemned, “it appears to have been operative in so many of the charges, arrests and confrontations by police with black men in a number of incidents in our country.”

Florez, who is from Colombia, said he does not want to make the discussion focused only on race. In fact, he said, the police department is doing an excellent job of connecting with the community and has a good reputation.

"It is no secret that the Newport Police Department had some problems of misconduct in the 1990s,” said Florez. “We have all heard the stories. But today, that is not the case.”

If Newport isn’t facing issues of police tension, why should local police wear cameras?

“Perfection doesn’t exist,” Florez answered. “Things can go wrong. We don’t live in a perfect society. Nobody had a perfect family. Things do happen. Cameras ensure the safety and accountability of the officers.”

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