Project Flashlight

With the launch Jan. 18 of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut’s Project Flashlight, for the first time the public will be able to find key information on police contracts and police commissions throughout the state in one online location.

The police transparency project was years in the making and will ultimately include information on police use of force incidents and lawsuits and settlements involving police, the organization said.

“Injustice thrives in the dark,” Dan Barrett, legal director of the CT ACLU, said in a press release announcing the launch. “At minimum, people should know what their local governments are doing, especially when it comes to oversight of something as expensive and harmful as police departments. Too often, the state and local governments obscure even basic information about what police are doing, things as simple as the contracts that those governments have chosen to agree to with police.”

The website, Project Flashlight, currently allows the public to look up police contracts in any town and get a sense of which towns have police commissions that govern police actions, said Claudine Fox, CT ACLU’s policy and advocacy director.

“We’re able to shine a light on a lot of the power towns are bargaining away to police departments,” Fox said.

A union representing at least 2,000 municipal police officers disagrees with the premise and believes the website provides the wrong impression of what’s in these labor contracts. 

“They seem to be saying there’s some secret language in police union contracts that protects bad officers. That’s not the case,” Brian Anderson, legislative director for AFSCME Council 4, said. “They’re almost at war with themselves in this report.” 

He said the issue of police accountability has been debated extensively for the last seven years. 

“It has been made easier to fire a police officer. Tools such as body cameras have been approved and are near universal. POST has been given even more power to bar officers from employment. A law preventing police contracts from impinging on freedom of information has been passed,” Anderson said. 

He said he doesn’t understand what more the ACLU could want because at this point they are calling for the end of policies they supported in the past. 

He added: “There is no such thing as a legitimate labor contract that does not include due process in terms of discipline. It is virtually impossible for a union to exist without such protection contractually guaranteed. If discipline is moot, then it is very easy for an employer to destroy a union by punitively disciplining or firing union leaders.”

The CT ACLU has heavily lobbied for police reforms after several highly publicized use of force deaths that left families with little information until the results of the investigation were released months or years later.

The goal of Project Flashlight is to provide residents with information on how much towns are spending on police in order to ask state and local officials to redirect some of the money to the community in the form of health care, housing and education, which all help cut crime, Fox said.

“For decades, Connecticut communities have spent more than they can afford, in human and financial costs, on policing, and it’s time to put those resources instead into education, healthcare, infrastructure, jobs, and housing,” Fox said. “The transparency brought by Project Flashlight alone won’t fix our state’s system in which police hurt and kill people, especially Black and Latinx people, with impunity and ever-increasing budgets. But information is one form of power, and we hope people will be able to use Project Flashlight to counter misinformation and create real community safety by reducing the size, role, and responsibilities of policing.”

The information took years to gather through freedom of information requests to every town with a police department, Fox said. In some cases, town officials couldn’t respond until they had finalized their contract with police, she said. 

“The CT chapter of the American Civil Liberties union has alleged that there is some conspiracy in union contracts to protect bad police officers. The discipline language in Council 4 AFSCME municipal police contracts mirrors the language that our union has for our municipal public works employees, town hall employees, maintenance employees and others,” Anderson said. 

An interactive map shows which towns utilize municipal departments or state police. People can then scroll down a list to pull up the police contract for their town. There is also a CT ACLU best practices box indicating whether or not a town engages in best practices regarding resident complaints, disciplinary actions and pensions.

A separate map shows which towns have police commissions or boards. Users can scroll to their town and find the names of police commision members, their term and whether they are elected or appointed.

The CT ACLU hopes to complete the website by the end of 2022. By that point, the organization should be able to access use of force data which the legislature mandated to be reported this year, Fox said.

There will also be a section on lawsuits filed against police and any settlements or outcomes that took place, she said.

“The curtain around policing only benefits the status quo, in which we the people pour money into policing at the expense of other valuable programs and to the disproportionate harm of Black and Latinx people,” Barrett said. “Collective bargaining agreements often shield police from accountability, and people have the power to change them. Police commissions could theoretically hold police departments accountable, and people have the power to make them take that direction. We hope Project Flashlight empowers people to make those changes and more.”