Local police departments throughout Connecticut are expected to equip all of their officers with body cameras by July 2022 in order to increase transparency and public trust in law enforcement.
But with less than a year before that new requirement goes into effect, it remains unclear exactly how many of the state’s municipal police officers are already wearing cameras and how many still need to be outfitted with the technology.
That’s because nobody at the state level is currently monitoring how many police departments are in compliance with the new mandate, which was included in a sweeping police accountability bill that passed in 2020 following a wave of protests against police violence and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn.
Officials with the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, which oversees the Police Officers Standards and Training Council, said they are not actively tracking the adoption of body cameras in Connecticut.
And the state Office of Policy and Management, which administers grants that cover part of the cost of the cameras, said the agency was only aware of which police departments had applied for that state funding to this point.
Marc Pelka, the undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning at OPM, said the police accountability bill didn’t designate a state agency to oversee the implementation of the new body camera requirement. “There is no enforcement mechanism regarding compliance,” he said.
You cannot be a functioning police operation in 2021 and not have body cameras.”
The staff at OPM, Pelka added, is focused on setting up the latest grant program for body cameras and educating local police departments about how to apply for and access that state money.
There are roughly 94 local police departments scattered throughout Connecticut’s 169 towns and cities, and the police chiefs at those agencies are responsible for overseeing more than 6,000 sworn officers, according to the most recent data published by the state.
Many of the departments that didn’t have body cameras before the passage of the police accountability bill have worked over the past year to make those purchases.
Simsbury, Manchester, Rocky Hill and East Hartford, for instance, submitted applications for state grant funding not long after the special session ended. And local news outlets across Connecticut have documented the approval of body cameras this year in places like Suffield, Ridgefield and West Hartford.
Still, the lack of oversight by the state makes it difficult to determine whether every police department is moving quickly enough to test the cameras, find the necessary funding and outfit their officers ahead of the deadline next summer.
It also makes it difficult for Connecticut residents to know if they can expect the officers in their town to be recording during traffic stops or when they respond to domestic disputes, mental health checks and other emergency calls.
Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said he was not surprised that some local police departments still need to acquire body cameras less than a year out from the deadline he and other lawmakers set.
The Democratic-controlled legislature, Winfield pointed out, has been trying to incentivize police agencies in Connecticut to adopt body cameras for more than five years, yet there are still agencies that have not bought into the technology.
“I am unfortunately a person who believes that there will still be departments that will not do what they are supposed to,” Winfield said.
Winfield recognized that it was a problem that there was no organized effort to track each police department’s progress in adopting body cameras. But he said that could be corrected next year if there is any question about whether all of the local agencies are complying. He said he would consider sponsoring legislation requiring each department to certify that they purchased the cameras and were actively using the technology.
“You cannot be a functioning police operation in 2021 and not have body cameras,” Winfield added. “It’s good for the public. It’s good for police. We can really see what is happening.”
Money left on the table
The push for body cameras in Connecticut began in earnest in 2015, following the high-profile killings of Michael Brown in Missouri and Walter Scott in South Carolina, two Black men who were gunned down by police.
That year, Connecticut lawmakers voted to create a new grant program to help fund the purchase of body cameras for state troopers, campus police and local departments throughout the state.
More than $12 million was eventually offered up for that effort — $10 million of which was dedicated to local police forces.
The state initially promised to refund local departments 100% of the cost of the camera purchases. Even so, many departments were slow to apply for the grants.
Some police chiefs in the state voiced concerns about the recurring expenses their departments would face to digitally store thousands of hours of footage. The state might cover the startup fees, they pointed out, but that didn’t help the departments cover the ongoing costs of maintaining those systems.
As a result, more than $3.5 million of the grant funding remained unused by the time Floyd’s murder last year reignited calls for police reforms in Connecticut.
Several leading Democratic lawmakers voiced frustrations over the fact that the grant money continued to go unclaimed while legislative reports estimated that more than half of the local police officers in the state continued to operate without body cameras.
“It’s amazing to me that even though the legislature has been working on this issue since at least as early as 2015, we still have as many municipalities in the state as we do that don’t have body cameras,” Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, said during one of the committee hearings last year. “You know, it seems every officer I talk to certainly tells me they want it as much for their own protection as the public wants it in order to increase transparency.”
The lack of interest by some police departments helped to convince state lawmakers of the need for the statewide mandate last year.
Connecticut is not the only state to recently take that step. At least six others, including Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Carolina, now require officers to wear the recording devices, according to a 2021 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The leaders of several police departments in Connecticut who have been working with body cameras for several years said there may be some initial apprehension among officers who are using the cameras for the first time. But they believe the technology can benefit both the public and the police.
The cameras can be used as part of internal investigations. Officers can rely on the footage to help prepare their police reports. And in some instances, it can protect police from wrongful claims of misconduct.
Leon Krolikowski, New Canaan’s police chief, said one of the reasons his department equipped its officers with cameras in 2015 was because of the proliferation of cell phone cameras and members of the public videotaping police.
Over the past six years, Krolikowski said, they’ve used the body cameras to review incidents when officers believed they were being falsely accused of something. “We go straight to the video, and it diffuses things,” he said.
David Wolf, a lieutenant with the Westport Police Department, said the cameras have also proved to be a valuable addition in their coastal town.
“I can’t say anything bad about them,” Wolf said. “Time and time again, they have proved to be an important tool.”
Several of the departments that put off purchasing body cameras until this year continue to cite the cost as the primary reason for avoiding the devices to this point.
Bethel Police Chief Stephen Pugner said the decision to buy body cameras in his town was always weighed against other expenditures for the police department, like new patrol cars or hiring additional officers.
“It’s always been a cost issue and whether it’s really needed here,” Pugner said, adding that incidents requiring camera footage were “few and far between” in the town of roughly 19,000 residents.
Pugner said he plans to go before Bethel’s Board of Selectmen in August to request the funding necessary to buy the cameras and bring the police department into compliance with the new state law. And he hopes to have his officers fully equipped by the fall.
He’s still frustrated, however, that state lawmakers mandated the technology throughout Connecticut without providing more money to help pay for the cameras, the ongoing storage costs for the videos and the costs of processing public requests for the footage under the state’s Freedom Of Information Act.
They shouldn’t make mandates unless they are funding them.”
The price of outfitting his 40 officers, Pugner said, is likely to be around $170,000, which is roughly 3% of the department’s overall budget from the last fiscal year.
“We run across these mandates on a regular basis,” Pugner said of the legislature. “They shouldn’t make mandates unless they are funding them.”
There is at least $4 million in state money that is currently available to departments, like Pugner’s, that are acquiring cameras for the first time. But the state is no longer being as generous with the grants as it was in past years. Municipalities that are considered economically distressed will still be reimbursed for up to 50% of the cost, but the remaining towns and cities are only eligible for 30% reimbursement.
Pugner is not the only one dealing with the finances a year out. The legislative report estimated that with the new reimbursement rates, police departments that lacked body cameras in 2020 would need to pick up a combined $4 million in costs on their own by next year.
Dennis Woessner, the East Hampton police chief, is in the process of picking out new body cameras for his department right now.
The initial price tag for equipping his 17 officers, he said, is not a huge concern. But he is worried about the long term cost of storing video footage for months or years at a time and having the manpower necessary to review that footage and respond to requests under the state’s Freedom Of Information Act.
“Fortunately, the town of East Hampton is very supportive of its police,” he said. “The town understood this was something I really didn’t have a choice in.”
Jacqueline Rabe Thomas and Kelan Lyons contributed to this report.