2016-01-14 / Front Page

Mgr. Backs Police Cameras

By Olga Enger

The Newport city manager has given a potential police camera pilot program a nod of approval.

In an eight-page memo sent to council on Jan. 11, interim City Manager Joseph Nicholson said that although he was initially reluctant to recommend a program unless the request originated from either the police department or the community, he sees little downside to the trial.

“I have reversed course and have concluded that cameras will add utility to our community and thus I am recommending we embark on a pilot program. The initial costs are nominal,” Nicholson wrote. He added that although a detailed financial analysis should be conducted during the pilot, the average cost per camera is $1,000.

He did not find an outside funding program available for the pilot program.

“I would suggest to you that we are either in the game or not in the game,” Nicholson wrote. “In other words, we either implement a program based upon need and good policies or we let it go. We should not recite generalities but decide on the City of Newport’s needs and then implement the technology.”

Nicholson reviewed the program after council directed staff to study the costs of the pilot program through a resolution introduced by Councilor John Florez in May.

Nicholson said if the police department wished to implement the program, he would be “fully supportive and work diligently to bring about the initiative.”

The Newport Police Department declined to comment on the recommendation.

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.

Newport would be the first Rhode Island department to implement a police camera program.

In neighboring Massachusetts, a few cities are testing them out, including Boston, Worcester, Lowell, Springfield, Methuen, Abington and Gill. Other cities including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle and Washington, D.C. have already launched body camera pilot programs.

Nicholson spoke with the Boston Police Department, which will be purchasing 50 cameras for a pilot program to be implemented by spring. Nicholson also pointed to small departments that have embraced police cameras, including Post Falls, Idaho, population 30,000, which made cameras mandatory in 2011.

“The biggest concern is data storage costs,” Nicholson said. “However, considering the size of our force, the data storage costs are generally affordable.”

The U.S. Department of Justice is awarding $20 million in funding to help equip law enforcement agencies with body cameras, as part of President Obama’s proposal to strengthen community policing.

Nicholson added that details such as community impact, privacy considerations, policy and procedures, training, open record parameters, and legal issues would have to be discussed.

Around 93 percent of Newport’s uniformed officers are white and two percent are black, according to data provided by Newport’s Human Resources department. According to 2014 census estimates, Newport’s general population was 91 percent white and four percent black, compared with the statewide average of 85 percent and eight percent, respectively.

Florez said he was “thrilled” with Nicholson’s recommendation. “I’m very happy the administration took these steps. I was skeptical that it would come through so soon. I’m really impressed with Nicholson.”

Although a resolution to vote on the camera program has not yet been put forward, the majority of councilors said they would consider the recommendation.

Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano said she is open to the idea.

“If we can do it at a reasonable cost, I think it could help provide transparency. It’s worth a try,” she said.

Councilor Marco Camacho said he supports the recommendation, knowing details such as privacy concerns and civil liberties will need to be fleshed out.

“This is what the people want. We work for the people,” said Camacho.

“My instincts say that it’s a reasonable thing to try,” said Councilor Naomi Neville. She added she would like to see a plan around how the technology would be used and maintained.

Councilor Kathryn Leonard wasn’t as enthusiastic about the proposal.

“I personally don’t think we have an issue in Newport,” said Leonard. “We aren’t Baltimore. How many problems have we had in Newport? Also there is a big expense involved. It would have to be vetted.”

Councilor Justin McLaughlin said he had not yet read Nicholson’s memo, because there was no action item on the agenda for the next council meeting.

Rhode Island Rep. Joseph Almeida, D-Providence, a retired patrol officer, has been advocating for measures to improve police accountability, including police cameras. Almeida plans to introduce a bill in 2016 that would require officers in the state to wear cameras, as well as provide funding for a program.

Almeida, along with Sen. Harold M. Metts, D-Providence, were the primary sponsors of the Comprehensive Community-Police Relationship Act, which was enacted last year.

The law requires all police departments to continue to collect race data on all traffic stops and to submit an annual report to the Department of Transportation’s Office of Highway Safety indicating what action has been taken to address any racial disparities in traffic stops and searches.

The legislation also prohibits “consent searches” of juveniles without reasonable suspicion or probable cause of criminal activity.

The bill was in the works before the death of Michael Brown and the subsequent riots in Ferguson, but the legislators said those incidents, as well as public unrest following other high-profile deaths of young black men at the hands of police in recent months, have been an indication that significant work is needed to establish trust between law enforcement and the minority community.

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