Connecticut towns and cities are spending millions of dollars of federal stimulus funds to install police surveillance systems in local communities, enabling law enforcement officials to more easily track people’s movements and potentially solve crimes.
Public records show that at least five municipalities in the state have allocated millions of dollars provided through the American Rescue Plan Act to equip local police departments with a variety of surveillance technology, which has raised concerns about privacy and civil liberties in the past.
The purchases of the new surveillance equipment were widely supported by local elected leaders in many towns, but in some instances, the spending prompted questions among local residents about whether the federal funding could be put to better use.
In the end, New London allocated more than $366,000 for surveillance cameras, which will continuously record footage in parts of the city.
Norwich budgeted $350,000 to expand its existing network of cameras. West Hartford appropriated $500,000 for similar cameras systems, which will be positioned at “strategic spots” throughout the town.
The town council in Newington dedicated $283,000 to automatic license plate readers, which will record the license plate number and image for every vehicle that passes through eight major intersections in town.
And in New Haven, the Board of Alders voted to spend $3.8 million on more than 500 new cameras and another $1.2 million on the city’s ShotSpotter network, which is supposed to help officers recognize and pinpoint the location of gunfire.
Those types of surveillance tools are not new to Connecticut law enforcement. Several of the state’s largest police departments have widely adopted similar technology over the past decade.
But the federal money flooding into Connecticut’s towns and cities at the moment is likely to make such surveillance systems more common throughout the state, especially in smaller municipalities where annual police budgets are not as large.
Patrick Daley, the police chief in Norwich, said his department had plans to add more surveillance cameras already, but it would have taken the town years to finance those purchases without the federal money.
The same is true in Newington.
“If that money wasn’t there for us, we wouldn’t have been able to do this,” said Bill Jameson, a lieutenant with the Newington Police Department. “That would have been a lot for the town to approve.”
Municipal leaders and law enforcement officials who attended public hearings in recent months argued that spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on surveillance equipment will help make their communities safer and the work of police officers easier.
Enabling police departments to record non-stop video footage in public spaces and to capture data on hundreds of thousands of vehicles, they said, will help officers locate witnesses to crimes, identify suspects in shootings, investigate burglaries and apprehend stolen vehicles — an issue that state lawmakers were fixated on during the 2022 legislative session.
“What we are seeing is the town making investments in public safety,” Liam Sweeney, a Democratic Councilman in West Hartford, said during a town meeting in December. “This is a really strong way to get things moving with these funds and a great way to serve and protect the community with it.”
“Adding more cameras would help reduce the crime in our town and give the citizens some respite,” Tim Manke, a Republican councilman in Newington, added during a public hearing in January.
Using the federal stimulus funds to buy police surveillance equipment is within the guidelines of the American Rescue Plan Act. In fact, President Joe Biden’s administration encouraged local governments to spend money in that way earlier this year and noted that $450 million had already been spent on policing tools nationally.
But not everyone is as keen on the idea of expanding the surveillance powers of local police.
The American Civil Liberties Union and similar organizations have raised concerns in recent months about the proliferation of police surveillance tools throughout the state.
Claudine Constant, the public policy and advocacy director for the ACLU of Connecticut, argued that the purchase of surveillance cameras and license plate readers was a “knee-jerk reaction” to people’s worries about crime.
Constant, who previously served on the Hartford City Council, questioned whether adding or expanding surveillance networks is the most effective strategy in making communities safer.
The American Rescue Plan Act, Constant pointed out, gave local leaders broad leeway in how to use millions of dollars in federal funding to improve their communities. That money, she argued, would be more effective if it was used to counteract poverty, unemployment and housing insecurity — all of which can contribute to crime in a community.
“What we really need to be doing is looking at the root causes of why things break down in our communities, and it’s because people aren’t appropriately supported,” she said. “They don’t have access to quality, well-paying jobs. They don’t have access to stable, affordable housing. They don’t have access to quality public schools.”
“If we really stop and listen to what people need, it’s not investing in more police power,” she said.
The same point was made by a handful of residents in New London last fall as local leaders in that city considered how to spend the $26.2 million in federal funding it received.
Several people who spoke at a public hearing regarding the ARPA funds referred to a community survey that had been conducted in New London last year. The results of that survey, they said, showed city residents had other priorities for the federal money, outside of buying police surveillance cameras.
Frida Berrigan, who ran for mayor in New London as a third-party candidate in 2019, told the city council that only 14% of the people who responded to the unofficial survey agreed that more police funding would make their lives better.
“This process to distribute the ARPA funding needs to be truly responsive to the needs of New London,” Berrigan told the city’s leaders.
Maya Sheppard, an organizer for a social justice group in New London, voiced similar concerns about the city’s decision to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the new police technology.
“Once again, we are in a moment that could actually transform how our community could live, and we cannot afford to fumble it — not by adding more funding to a police department that already received an increase just a few months ago,” she said.
New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker recognized that some people may be wary about the expanded use of surveillance tools and their effects on people’s privacy and civil liberties. He heard some of those concerns as New Haven’s Board of Alders debated his request for more security cameras earlier this year.
But Elicker said the mix of surveillance cameras and license plate readers he asked for in New Haven is a necessary step to confronting violence in the city of roughly 134,000 people.
Elicker pointed out that Hartford and Bridgeport already have sophisticated surveillance systems that allow officers in those cities to more thoroughly investigate shootings and other serious crimes. And he argued the police department in New Haven — Connecticut’s third-largest city — needs the same capabilities.
“This is a permanent investment in public safety in New Haven,” Elicker said. “Cameras are not going to solve the world’s problems around public safety, but cameras, I believe, are a very important tool for us being able to solve crimes.”
In the past two years, New Haven has seen an uptick in homicides, and last year the city recorded its highest homicide rate in a decade.
“Given the uptick in violence that we’re seeing around the nation, it doesn’t surprise me that other municipalities are thinking about this as well,” Elicker added. “It’s an important component to our ability to keep the community safe.”
Reviving a debate over privacy
The expanded use of the surveillance equipment in Connecticut could reignite a political debate over how the state regulates some of those tools.
Consider the automatic license plate readers, which will soon be sweeping up information on vehicles travelling through several busy intersections in Newington.
Unlike other states, Connecticut has no laws limiting when or how police can use the information from those cameras. Also, agencies are not required to delete the data they collect from those devices after a set period of time.
Officials with the ACLU believe that is a serious problem, and they’ve argued that allowing police departments to keep months’ or years’ worth of data detailing the travel patterns of thousands of vehicles threatens people’s privacy and their constitutional rights.
That concern is even more pronounced, they argue, when police departments combine their surveillance systems together.
The ACLU tried to convince state lawmakers a decade ago to set limits on the license plate readers after requesting and reviewing more than 3.1 million images that had been collected by several local police departments in Connecticut.
The group specifically asked the legislature to require police departments to discard the license plate data after 14 days, unless the information was part of an ongoing investigation or prosecution. The ACLU argued that type of policy would still allow police to use the technology for crime-fighting purposes while protecting against the potential misuse of those systems.
The legislation that the ACLU recommended in 2012 and 2013 went nowhere, however. And the bills met stiff resistance from the law enforcement community, even though Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire and a number of other states already had similar laws on the books.
The Connecticut Division of Criminal Justice submitted testimony to state lawmakers arguing the legislation would have set “arbitrary and unreasonable limits” on how police and prosecutors could use the license plate data.
“While the division is certainly cognizant of the potential privacy concerns that may be raised with regard to the use of automated license plate recognition devices, those concerns by no means outweigh the value such devices have in the investigation and prosecution of serious crime,” the agency told lawmakers.
During public meetings this year, several police chiefs and local elected officials sought to forestall any ongoing concerns that their new surveillance tools would infringe on people’s privacy.
Leon Davidoff, a Democratic councilman in West Hartford, assured town residents that the new security cameras that will be installed by the police department would only be used for investigating alleged crimes.
“It’s not a Big Brother thing, where we are monitoring our citizens’ movements day to day,” he said.
Vernon Riddick, West Hartford’s Police chief, made a similar point during another hearing. The surveillance cameras may record footage around the clock, but that doesn’t mean that someone is monitoring it at all times, he said.
“The important thing is it is not constant surveillance 24/7,” Riddick said.