With protests raging from coast to coast following the decisions by grand juries in Missouri and New York not to indict police officers accused of killing unarmed men, communities big and small turned their attention to improving relations between the public and those sworn to protect them.
Connecticut did not see highways or businesses shut down by protesters, but the discussions on how to strengthen the bonds between police officers and residents are ongoing.
The Hartford City Council has proposed purchasing body cameras for their officers, bypassing privacy concerns and cost in favor of more transparency and accountability for both law enforcement and citizens.
The technology is nothing new. Hartford police have considered the use of body cameras for years, going as far as purchasing, testing and evaluating the usefulness of the cameras out on the street.
“The pros of having cameras have been proven,” explained Deputy Police Chief Brian Foley. He cited the training capabilities body cameras provide and said the drop in citizen complaints has helped to cut costs.
Negotiations with the union have stalled, according to Foley, because of issues surrounding how the body camera footage would be distributed, who would be responsible for managing it and the cost of organizing the video.
The cost of the actual camera varies and is a one-time fee typically in the hundreds of dollars per unit. But storing the video could cost in tens of thousands of dollars per year.
That’s just one of the issues that has caused police unions here and around the country to urge caution.
Andy Matthews, president of the union representing Connecticut State Police and chairman-elect of the National Troopers Coalition, said their concerns aren’t related to public knowledge of what troopers do.
“The issue for us as a union is collective bargaining,” said Matthews. “We believe it's a change in our working conditions and it's only right the employer comes to the table and negotiates the terms and conditions of the employment, which would be being on camera 24/7.”
Matthews added that there's also concern over the privacy rights of the public, with camera footage being in the public domain and subject to freedom of information requests.
“There are some things the public doesn't want to see, that they shouldn't see, and when everything’s on camera all the time, it's an issue the government and the legislature is going to need to address,” said Matthews.
One police department praising the technology is in East Haven, which has used body cameras for more than a year and a half.
Their use was part of an agreement with the Department of Justice and U.S. attorney’s office, following a federal investigation that found the department was violating the civil rights of Latinos in the community. Four officers were convicted.
“It's a protection for the officers, the community and for the individuals that they encounter,” said Police Chief Brent Larrabee, who considers body cameras a protection for the officers, community and for the “individuals they encounter.”
East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo said lawsuits alleging police misconduct were piling up on his desk four years ago, but once body cameras were instituted, everything changed. And the lawsuits stopped.
“The body cam is saving this department and community thousands of dollars by just having the officer give a couple taps on that body cam to show everybody what really is going on,” said Maturo, who added that the technology is a “morale booster” for his police force. “It certainly has made a 180-degree change in our department."
When the Troubleshooters spoke with some officers, they backed up claims that cameras have been a morale booster, although said they did take some getting used to.
The Connecticut ACLU is also pro-body cameras. Staff Attorney David McGuire said anything police can do to maintain credibility and ensure transparency is a positive, but the technology is only as strong as the policies that bind it.
“If you leave it to the discretion of the officer, it will not protect anyone but the officer,” said McGuire. “So, whenever you have an incident where there may be an arrest, the officer has to put on the body camera and notify the public that they're doing so.”
While Hartford continues to debate the issue, Maturo can only speculate whether body cameras could have had an impact on that dark period in East Haven's history.
“It’s certainly tough to say ‘yes, it would’ or ‘no, it wouldn't,” said Maturo. “But I do believe that it could have changed the story a little bit.”