- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 14, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - A state legislator and retired police officer plans to introduce a bill requiring Rhode Island police to wear body cameras.

Rep. Joseph S. Almeida called body cameras “a safety device” for the community and the police force that could help improve the relationship and communication between the sides. He says he’s following the lead of other states.

Lawmakers across the country are filing legislation in response to the killings by police of unarmed civilians in Ferguson, Missouri, New York, and elsewhere.

“The camera would show what’s going on,” said Almeida, a Democrat from Providence who serves as the deputy majority whip. “If there’s so much discretion within the police department, why not take some of that discretion and fear out with a body camera?”

Rep. Raymond Hull says there are privacy issues that would need to be solved first. Hull, a Democrat, is a police sergeant in Providence and represents parts of Providence and North Providence.

“I see, most of the time, people at their worst. I’ve been in houses that are in shambles,” Hull said. “It’s not so much that I’m looking to protect the cops, I’m more interested in protecting the privacy of people when I’m in their home.”

If there’s not a mechanism in the bill to prevent the videos filmed with body cameras from being widely disseminated, Hull said he would vote against it.

Chief Elwood M. Johnson Jr., president of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association, said the association would oppose any legislative proposal in the General Assembly that mandates body cameras because it would be “an unreasonable and unfunded mandate” for municipalities.

Even if there were alternative funding sources, Johnson said it should be up to the police chief and municipal authority in each jurisdiction to decide what their spending priorities are and what equipment they need. Johnson also said it would be overwhelming for small police departments that have minimal administrative staffing to process blanket public records requests for videos filmed with body cameras.

Charles Wilson, the chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, said body cameras are “not the panacea.” But they do increase transparency and can help protect officers and the community, added Wilson, a senior lieutenant in the campus police department at Rhode Island College.

In the aftermath of the fatal shooting of a black 18-year-old in Ferguson by a white police officer, Wilson said, “there’s no doubt that the technology is what’s needed to provide the transparency that has to be there.” He said privacy will always be a concern “on both sides of the camera,” but policies can be put in place to address that.

Almeida said he’s still researching how body cameras are being used elsewhere, but he plans to introduce a bill this session. He said he is concerned about the cost.

Almeida worked as a patrolman in Providence and co-founded the Rhode Island Minority Police Association. He retired in 1995 and now represents Providence’s South Side and Washington Park.

“Police work is consistently evolving, consistently changing,” he said. “I really feel as though a body camera is part of that evolution.”

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