While waiting to see about state funding the cameras, the Bristol Police Department has launched a 30-day demo/pilot program, with a couple of officers on each shift volunteering to wear the technology.
Last July, Rhode Island enacted a statewide program that aims to equip every frontline police officer and supervisor with body-worn cameras. This is not a mandate, but rather a program that offers funding to departments who choose to adopt, and the state is leaving that choice up to individual towns. In preparation for that decision, the Bristol Police Department has launched a 30-day demo/pilot program, with a couple of officers on each shift volunteering to wear the technology.
Though still waiting for the finalization of the funding for the cameras, currently in routine use only in Providence and Newport, it is anticipated that startup and operations for at least five years will be covered.
“We just want to be ready if the state does get the funding and the policy is adopted by the police department,” said Major Brian Burke who, along with Sgt. Brian Morse, is coordinating the demo program for the department. “The chief feels that this is a good fit for the town of Bristol and for our department, and we want to have the tools ready to go forward and implement the program as quickly as possible.”
While body cameras have been attracting attention nationwide, the kinds of egregious acts caught on camera by perpetrators and officers alike are few and far between in Bristol — named the safest town in Rhode Island just last year. Our police department has been honored for its extensive community policing efforts and the department is viewed favorably by an overwhelming majority of citizens. What application would body cameras have in a community like ours?
“The goal is to have accountability,” said Chief Kevin Lynch. “People have to trust in the work that the police officers do. I think people are going to be surprised when they see what interactions police officers encounter…the difficult situations that they walk into. It's a difficult and challenging job in the 21st century.”
“I can't be more proud of the work Bristol police officers do,” Lynch continued. “We’re not perfect, but we do an outstanding job day in and day out providing a professional level of service. We're a small police department, but we're very, very engaged with the community.”
For Lynch, who currently serves as the vice president of the RI Police Chiefs Association, there are a lot of things to consider before this technology is put in place.
“We have to be able to let our officers go out in the field and to be comfortable with it,” he said. “When does it need to be turned on? When does it not need to be turned on? Do we inform the public or not inform the public that you're on body-worn camera?”
Body-worn cameras are the final box that the Bristol PD needs to check off on the Twenty for 2020 Pledge: Twenty Promises to all Rhode Island’s from their Police Departments — a list of principals, promises, and policy amendments devised in the wake of the George Floyd murder.
“The only one that we were shy on was body-worn cameras,” said Lynch. “And now I'm very pleased to say that we have checked off every one of those every one of those boxes. We've updated all of our policies and our procedures.”
The cameras themselves work just like a GoPro, clipping or magnetizing to an officer’s uniform. They are always on in a reboot mode, passively recording 30 seconds of soundless footage, a buffer that is added to the beginning of the footage when the camera is turned on, so if an incident begins suddenly an officer can capture those first moments.
Burke and Morse selected Axon products to demo, choosing from five companies given the opportunity to pitch their products to Rhode Island police departments. They selected Axon for their functionality and range of options that they could add on, budget-willing. The cameras work with apps on officers’ phones and could even allow remote observation by leadership. Highly encrypted, even if a camera were to fall into the wrong hands, it wouldn’t yield information to anyone outside the department.
“The policy would require all frontline officers to have a body cam, so that would be sergeants and patrol officers,” said Burke. “And then we would have a bank [of cameras] for our detectives in the event they go out and they have to execute a search warrant.”
“We're hoping that when the citizens see that we've done all of these things to professionalize the police department that they will continue and to have the respect that they do for us,” said Lynch. “We are very fortunate with the amount of respect that the residents of this community have for the Police Department, and it goes both ways.”