Hidden video camera triggers police sickout

Enraged officers protest surveillance at substation

April 23, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Nearly five dozen police officers -- 90 percent of the first two patrol shifts -- called in sick yesterday to register their disgust with the department for secretly operating a hidden video camera in a substation.

Police administrators scurried to find replacements to patrol the city, asking officers from previous shifts to work overtime and assigning other officers who don't work patrol to do so. It was the first time in the department's 135-year history that officers had called in sick en masse.

The surveillance came to light Friday when a sergeant, trying to fix a slow clock in the roll-call room at the Dupont Street substation, found a video camera hidden in the clock face. Officers were enraged.

The department's patrol commander, Maj. Dennis W. Simoneau, said the surveillance was in response to several incidents of vandalism at the substation, particularly to a padlocked mailbox in which $30,000 in computers were kept when not in use.

Simoneau said someone poured cooking oil into the box 10 months ago. After trying for months, he said, he finally got permission from the chief to have the camera installed a few weeks ago.

But rank-and-file officers believe that the chief, Col. Urbano Prignano Jr., ordered the surveillance to ferret out suspected leaks to the media and to find out who was posting notes criticizing the chief.

In response to the discovery of the surreptitious surveillance, officers have asked the union to hold a no-confidence vote on the police chief. The union has hired a lawyer to see if the videotaping was illegal.

Union officials said the union neither organized nor approved the sick calls. "But it just goes to show you how disgruntled these guys are," said Patrolman Michael M. Marcoccio, the union president.

Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. said the officers who called in sick should not be disciplined so long as they quickly returned to work. "If they wanted to make a statement, fine," he said. "You made it, [now] go back to work."

The mayor criticized the decision to operate a secret video camera inside the substation. But he defended the police chief, who the mayor said didn't authorize its installation. "I don't think cameras are appropriate inside the squad room, and neither does the colonel," Cianci said.

Pub Date: 4/23/99

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