After $3 Million Sweep, a Five-year-old Body Camera Bill With Limited Success for Police Reform

Five years after the Connecticut General Assembly approved a $10 million program to reimburse municipal police departments for purchasing body cameras, less than $6.5 million of that funding has been distributed, and what been distributed was not all designated for body cameras.

Small municipalities that haven’t purchased the technology say that the ongoing cost of storing videos and handling freedom of information requests has kept them from using the grant.

Now, as nation-wide protests call for increased police transparency in response to police killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis, some towns are reconsidering the cost.

But five years later, little of that state funding remains available for local policing.

This March, as part of its annual bond adjustment, the state legislature shifted $3 million of the remaining $3.6 million into a fund for state police, citing limited municipal interest in using the grants. 

Lacking incentive

The funding was part of a 2015 state law meant to curb excessive use of force by police officers. That law followed earlier widespread protests after a series of high-profile police killings of Black men, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in Staten Island, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

Originally, the grant reimbursed the purchase of body cameras and the first year of storing data.

But the 43 departments that have received grants amount to fewer than half of the 92 municipal police departments in Connecticut.

One of the few municipalities in southeast Connecticut to use the grant to purchase body cameras was Groton. The State reimbursed the town for $98,998 in 2017, the first year it disbursed grants. 

After a year of state-reimbursed costs, the town began paying between $25,000 and $40,000 to manage the videos, a relatively modest amount given the size of the Groton police budget, said Groton Town Councilor Aundré Bumgardner. Bumgardner was a state representative in 2015 and co-sponsored the policing bill.

The town spent $8.1 million on policing in the 2019 fiscal year, and spent a total of $124.6 million from its general fund. The body camera costs account for between three-tenths to one-half of one percent of the police budget that year.

Asked about the program, Essex First Selectman Norm Needleman said that the town doesn’t have the infrastructure to manage all the video files it would have to keep if its six constables were equipped with body cameras, but he said that the town’s state trooper does wear a camera.

Essex spent $377,275 on police services in the 2019 fiscal year, and another $181,678 on its resident state troopers, a fraction of Groton’s policing budget. Essex spent a total of $24.4 million out of its general fund that year.

Needleman said that the town could probably store the videos, but the municipality also has to consider the cost of making those videos available through freedom of information requests.

He said that he had asked the resident trooper to learn whether the town could use the state police cloud storage system.

“No one who works for Essex is opposed to it, it’s always been about the cost,” he said.

Expanding the program, sweeping the budget

After the first round of grants in 2017, the legislature expanded the program, allowing the grants to reimburse the cost of TASER cameras, first-time purchases of dashboard cameras, and for body cameras for constables in resident trooper towns.

Over the next three years, the legislature continued to expand the program, pushing back the deadline and reimbursing departments that replaced dashboard cameras they purchased before 2010.

This year, the assembly swept $3 million of the $10 million set aside for grants to municipal departments and put it aside for state police. 

Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said the shift was motivated by what the Office of Policy and Management saw as less demand from municipalities and an opportunity to purchase more cameras for the state police, which has jurisdiction over 80 towns, including 55 with resident state troopers.

Rojas said he was hopeful, when the bill passed in 2015, that more towns would use the grant to buy body cameras, but saw that many had concerns with the ongoing cost of storing data that the grant didn’t cover.

The Office of Policy and Management has issued about $6.4 million in grants to municipal departments, so there is about $500,000 left for those grants through 2021. Now, the program will only reimburse half of the costs municipalities incur to buy body-worn, dashboard or TASER cameras.

Ledyard had a resident trooper and constables until 2016, when it established the Ledyard Police Department and hired John Rich as police chief.

The town used the expanded grant to outfit the patrol cars of its newly-formed department with cameras and microphones.

Rich said that he approached the town council in 2017 with a proposal to purchase body cameras and in-vehicle cameras. The council only moved forward with the in-car cameras because of concerns with the long-term costs of storing body camera videos, Rich said.

The state reimbursed Ledyard $83,155 in 2019 for the cameras and one year of data storage. Ledyard spent just over $2.4 million on police in 2018, out of a $54.3 million budget. 

Rich said he has made another request to purchase body cameras for Ledyard police officers, and he’s hopeful with better data storage options available.

“Things have changed and evolved in that conversation for that to be much, much less of a concern than it was back then,” he said.

In 2018, Old Saybrook initially purchased body cameras without the grant program, and was reimbursed $56,639 in 2019 as the program expanded. The town spent $4.6 million on police in 2019, out of a total budget of $45.6 million.

Old Saybrook Police Chief Michael Spera said the body camera program has added to his captain’s responsibilities, which now include making CD copies of videos in response to records requests.

“Some defense attorneys have requested every second of video from every police officer’s camera who was on scene, so we routinely are making CDs upon CDs upon CDs of body camera footage for the court to use,” Spera said.

While that process is cumbersome, Spera said the benefits of the program clearly outweigh any of the extra work it creates.

A “win-win” for police and public

Body cameras have found support among police leaders and advocates for police accountability. A video record can make clear when an officer was abusing their power or using unnecessary and dangerous force, and police say it could also absolve an officer if they were acting properly.

Both Rich and Spera praised the effect of having cameras in patrol cars and on officers. Having cameras on scene can create video evidence of crimes, and also give supervisors a way to see their officers’ interactions with the public, they said.

“It’s been a great help,” Rich said of the in-vehicle cameras. “I think my officers understand that they’re extremely beneficial, and I plan to add body-worn video to our arsenal of technology here in Ledyard.”

Milford Police Chief Keith Mello, president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said the body cameras are useful for the public and for police officers. The videos are “really good evidence” and officers appreciate that the videos can prove when they acted professionally, he said.  

“They are a win-win,” Mello said. “I think the public expects us to have them, so I see little reason not to have body cameras.”

The videos also show when an officer acted improperly, made a mistake, or could have done better, Mello said. The videos can be used as a training tool, allowing officers to see how they could have handled a situation better, Mello said. Spera agreed about the value cameras have for training.

“Every so often we can randomly select different videos of our police officers to watch, we look for opportunities to train and enhance someone,” he said. “It’s an evaluation tool as well, to make sure our officers are safe and performing to our expectations.”

According to Bumgardner, there would have been much different responses to the killings of Eric Garner in 2014 and George Floyd this June if bystanders hadn’t recorded videos of police killing the men. 

Because people saw those videos, there was public pressure for accountability and reform. But being recorded didn’t stop them from committing “brutal, heinous acts” and killing Garner and Floyd, Bumgardner said.

“Even though there was video evidence that every American could see, it didn’t stop Derek Chauvin from putting his knee on George Floyd’s neck,” he said. “Body cameras are a tool that can be used to improve transparency, but they don’t prevent the killing of unarmed civilians and Black people.”