2015-06-04 / Around Town

Councilors Proceed Cautiously on Police Cameras

By Barry Bridges

At a time of national debate surrounding the sometimes tense relationship between law enforcement officers and their communities, the Newport City Council took up a resolution sponsored by Councilor John Florez that asked the city administration to begin taking a closer look at police body cameras.

At a meeting on Wednesday, May 27, city leaders approved an amended version of the resolution. As originally put forth by Florez, the measure was crafted narrowly and simply asked the administration to investigate possible funding sources for a one-year body camera pilot program. The proposal outlined several benefits of equipping the force with cameras, such as establishing “mutual accountability and trust” between the police department and citizens, protecting the city from exaggerated claims and frivolous lawsuits, preserving information, and assisting in ambiguities that are sometimes created by eyewitness testimony.

Florez said that “it is in the best interests of the city to take proactive steps that will have a beneficial impact on all of its citizens” and further elaborated that “it’s important to know that this idea has broad local support, from Reps. Lauren Carson and Marvin Abney, the local chapter of the NAACP, and from the vast majority of the many constituents that I’ve talked to regarding this.”

He also shared national statistics reflecting the prevalence of the technology, reporting that around 22 percent of U.S. police departments already have such a program in place. He added, “While different studies have shown that body camera programs reduce police misconduct by 50 percent, they’ve also found that citizen complaints against officers have dropped by as much as 90 percent.”

Florez stressed that the resolution was “in no way a condemnation against our police department” but thought it was “important for Newport to be at the forefront of movements that will help improve the quality of life of our citizens.”

However, other councilors weren’t convinced that body cameras would be effective without first establishing appropriate guidelines for the program.

“Councilor Florez and I don’t really agree on this, but it may just be a matter of process,” said Justin McLaughlin. “Before cameras are put in place, a variety of policy issues must be determined.” He described the need to delineate what types of interactions will be recorded, how videos will be stored, and the circumstances under which footage could be released to the public.

“There’s much more to it than strapping a camera on an officer’s uniform. Before you buy them, you need to have a policy about how you’re going to use them,” McLaughlin reasoned. “Without a framework of strong policies, the benefits will not exceed the privacy risks.”

McLaughlin was furthermore not convinced of the immediate need for the technology. “I don’t see that there’s a need in Newport today,” he said, although he was willing to support further analysis of best practices.

Councilor Naomi Neville expressed similar concerns about proper protocols, and introduced a motion to require further research as to what policies are needed, as well as information on long-term costs and the maintenance requirements inherent in such an effort.

But Neville also viewed the resolution as a practical step forward. “I don’t think this question is going to go away, and it’s the right idea to pass something to start this dialogue,” she said. “Cameras are everywhere; they are changing our reality, whether or not we’re holding them as we walk down the street or if they’re on buildings or if the police are going to start wearing them….So I believe Councilor Florez is making a good initiative to start the dialogue.”

Third Ward representative Kathryn Leonard supported the motion for more research and said, “I, for one, am grateful that I do not live in a community that I have seen all over CNN news, but I think it’s really important to know what exactly we want these cameras to do and what kind of policies should be in place for their use.”

Like McLaughlin, she was not convinced of an imminent need. “Maybe I’m sheltered, but I don’t see, as we speak today, a lot of huge difficulties in terms of relationships between the police and the public.” But Leonard acknowledged that the first step was to create a set of policies, and hoped that public input could be solicited as the city moved forward.

Councilor Marco Camacho suggested additional amendments to the resolution, hoping to expand its reach to investigate other technologies that could possibly act as “force multipliers” to assist the police in performing their duties, such as a consolidated dispatch network or a system to track the location of officers from a tactical operations center. However, after some discussion among the panel and interim City Manager Joseph Nicholson, Camacho withdrew his suggestions as “confusing” and “too broad to properly articulate.”

The resolution incorporating Neville’s amendments was approved unanimously, which moves the issue to city staff for further legwork. A suggestion by Second Ward Councilor Lynn Ceglie to open the topic to public comments through a workshop was also included in the measure.

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