Body cameras will soon be standard operating equipment for all police officers in Connecticut, according to a group of law enforcement and freedom of information experts who participated in a Southern Connecticut State University forum last week.
“And that’s a good thing,’’ said Anthony Gaunichaux, vice president of the NAACP chapter in Middletown and who, until his retirement, worked as a supervisor in the Connecticut Department of Children and Families.
Gaunichaux continued: “We live in a world today where there is just so much going on. We need that third eye. Cameras on the street help, it can help the vast majority of good cops out there do their jobs.”
Gaunichaux was joined on the panel by James H. Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and a member of the New England First Amendment Coalition Board of Directors; Leonard Boyle, the deputy chief state’s attorney for Connecticut, a former director of the Terrorist Screening Center for the FBI in Washington.
Also on the panel were Manchester Police Captain Christopher Davis, who has been the department’s public information officer for 12 years, and Colleen Murphy, the executive director and general counsel for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission.
While Gaunichaux and the other panelists agreed there are many more good than bad cops, Gaunichaux did add: “I’ve never seen so many murders by cops who got away with it. That’s got to stop. Thankfully, Connecticut is not Ferguson, Missouri.”
The shooting of Michael Brown occurred on Aug. 9, 2014, in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer. A grand jury declined to indict Wilson in the shooting, sparking civil unrest and a national dialogue about police use of force.
Manchester Police Capt. Davis said that the body camera is a “tool that is changing the industry — a very valuable tool.”
Deputy Chief State’s Attorney Boyle, however, said body cameras are not going to solve everything.
“While body cameras can restore the public’s faith in police, it is not a panacea,” Boyle said. “It is important to remember that the camera captures one moment in time, not the entire sequence of a police call.”
Both FOI experts, Smith and Murphy, pointed out that while Connecticut hasn’t had the kind of police shootings that have drawn national attention like those in Ferguson and other parts of the country, the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook prompted debate about what information about a crime scene should be made public.
The Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting occurred on Dec. 14, 2012, in Newtown, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 first graders and six school staff members.
As first responders arrived at the scene, Lanza committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
Murphy said the Sandy Hook shooting “got us started thinking about the importance of having digital records, videos of police conduct.”
In 2013, the General Assembly approved a bill that exempted crime scene photos of murder victims, including the 26 Newtown victims, from the state’s Freedom of Information laws.
In addition to struggling with what should or should not be made public, Connecticut police departments are grappling with the cost of storing recordings captured by body cameras.
While state legislators have said they are willing to revisit a law passed in 2015 encouraging Connecticut police departments to equip officers with body cameras after several police chiefs said the cost of equipping their officers was too prohibitive, no extra money is coming to help with the effort in the near future.
Legislators said the state’s bleak financial picture has forced their hand — meaning municipal departments are mostly on their own to foot the cost of using body cameras for police personnel.
Connecticut police departments that use state money for cameras must retain recordings for at least three months under a policy written by the state Police Officer Standards and Training Council. But if a recording becomes evidence in a case, it must be stored for a minimum of four years.
The legislature approved $15 million last year for a grant program for body cameras, $13 million for municipal police and $2 million for state police. Lawmakers acknowledged that the sum wouldn’t come close to covering all the costs of the program.
Davis said he doesn’t have a good answer as to how to find the funding to equip every cop in the state of Connecticut with a body camera, especially in a year when both local and state officials are struggling with difficult budget constraints. But he also said he has no doubt that cameras will be “industry standard” in a few years.
“Nobody is pushing back against their usage,” Davis said. “And it doesn’t end with body cameras. These days every police car has gizmos in it that are recording everything that goes on each and every minute of each officer’s shift.”