2015-12-10 / Front Page

Police Cameras Studied

By Olga Enger

As protests continue across the country against police brutality and shootings, Newport will soon join a nationwide discussion regarding body cameras on police officers. A report including the costs and other details of a potential pilot program will be released in January, according to the city manager’s office.

“You can’t deny the fact that it’s a systemic issue,” said Councilor John Florez, who introduced a resolution to study a camera program in May. “If you are a minority, especially if you are African-American, it’s far more likely that you could be a victim. It’s troublesome.”

The resolution said cameras would provide “mutual accountability and truth” between Newport residents and the department.

Communities across the nation have taken a closer look at how they evaluate police departments since the August 2014 fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager in Ferguson, Mo. Historically, departments have been measured based on crime rates and 911 response times. A 2013 survey estimated 32 percent of local police departments were using body cameras, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Chicago recently announced their intentions of expanding their police camera program, amid outrage surrounding a video showing a white police officer fatally shooting a black teenager 16 times. The city said it planned to add 1,400 new cameras, at a total cost of $2.2 million.

Councilor Marco Camacho, who has said he represents many of Newport's lower income and racially diverse population, is open to the idea of police body cameras, but stressed that civil liberties need to be carefully considered.

"I agree with cameras being an additional tool for law enforcement, but how we implement that tool, we would really have to flesh that out," said Camacho. "The last thing we need is a minor's face being put on YouTube. There needs to be a balance. Because the technology is so new, we don't yet know what that balance is."

“As a community leader, I feel we have an obligation to look out for public safety,” said Florez. “Sadly, when you go beyond Newport’s Hispanic or African-American community, people are neutral on the topic. I don’t feel there is a strong desire on the part of the police or council to move forward with such a program.”

The Newport Police Department is finalizing a recommendation, which will be submitted to the city manager’s office for review. Although the specifics have not yet been made public, Newport Sergeant Corey Huck said one issue that would require careful consideration is privacy.

“Police often enter domestic violence situations and deal with juveniles. There would also need to be rules around when cameras are on or off, such as in restrooms, or what is made public,” Huck said.

Keith Stokes, who has served in leadership positions at the local and state level and most recently has documented stories of Newport’s African-American history, said he would like to see a holistic approach, not just limited to cameras.

“I applaud Councilor Florez for the resolution, because it starts a dialogue, but this should be a starting point,” said Stokes. “With a community as small and scalable as Newport, we should be able to adopt a more human approach, such as strong community policing.”

Huck, who heads up the city’s community policing department, agreed.

“Newport has always been at the forefront of community policing. We were the first department in the state to adopt a community policing department 20 years ago,” said Huck. “In my opinion, I would prefer to see a stronger community policing program, rather than cameras.”

Huck, who has served in his new role for five months, plans to expand the department, beginning as early as the next fiscal year. On his team is Community Police Officer James “Jimmy” Winters, who is also the president of the Newport County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Huck said that Winters, who has served as a longtime voice for the local minority and low-income population, has not expressed concerns related to police relations.

Florez countered the city should not wait for tensions to adopt a camera program.

“One school of thought is that we have a safe community, with low crime, so we don’t need the cameras,” said Florez. “But it’s a preventive tool. It is better to be at the forefront of these innovations, rather than being at the tail end.”

At the state level, Gov. Gina Raimondo signed a new law in July that requires police departments to collect race data on traffic stops and submit an annual report to the Department of Transportation’s Office of Highway Safety.

“I personally feel that body cameras should be part of the uniform,” said Victoria Johnson, a member of the local NAACP branch. Johnson, whose husband served as a Newport police officer, added that safety is not only an issue for minorities. “People say in Newport we don’t have those problems, but these problems are everywhere.”

Huck added the rising tensions have impacted recruitment for the department.

“When I first started out almost 20 years ago, we would get 700 applications for an open position. Today, we get just over a hundred. I believe it has to do with the current climate,” he said.

Stokes said the conversation should be framed around all public employees, not just the police department. Johnson, a retired Rogers High School principal, said she has advocated to the School Committee several times over the past 10 years for more minority teachers.

Newport’s human resources department was not able to provide employee race demographics by press time.

“Newport should require a public workforce that is more representative of the population it serves,” said Stokes. “Census reports indicate that by 2050, the majority of the U.S. population will be persons of color. We already see this in many urban areas.”

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