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Some Connecticut municipalities are using pandemic funds for police surveillance

Scott Webb

The American Rescue Plan Act provided pandemic relief money to communities across the country. In Connecticut, some municipalities are using the money for surveillance cameras.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Dave Altimari to discuss his article written with Andrew Brown, “CT municipalities using federal ARPA funds to expand police surveillance tools,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Dave, could you just tell us about Connecticut towns and cities spending millions of dollars of federal stimulus funds on surveillance? What's that about?

DA: Yes, this is the second batch of federal money. It's called ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act). And the towns and the cities have to report what they're spending it on quarterly to the federal government. And so for the first time, the state's largest 20 municipalities recently reported to the U.S. Treasury how they were spending some of this money.

This is the initial tranche of this money. There's a lot of money floating through this ARPA program that towns and cities are going to get. And so, of the 20 that have submitted something, we discovered that several of them, at least five of them, are using the money to purchase surveillance cameras, either for traffic lights, or in some cases, the ones that can be put right on a police cruiser.

WSHU: Now, how do they justify this? What connection has this got to do with? Because this is supposed to be rescue funds for COVID. Right?

DA: What they're doing is not illegal, it is considered okay. The guidelines are very broad for the categories that you can use the money for. And there's so much of it flowing in that cities can get pretty creative as to what they want to use it for. This is actually, I think it's $450 million, roughly, nationwide, has been spent on law enforcement stuff from ARPA funding alone. So it's not unique. There are some significant investments like New Haven spending nearly $4 million of their ARPA funding to install 500 cameras around the city.

WSHU: Now, these are things that they had wanted to do for a while, but they didn't have the funds. And now that these funds are available, they're channeling towards these programs. Is that what's going on here?

DA: In some cases, that's correct. For example, Norwich actually already has a surveillance camera program. The money that they're using, I think about $500,000 or something like that, is going to expand that program to different areas of the city than they already have.

New Haven is trying to catch up with Hartford and Bridgeport. Hartford has a state-of-the-art system that's been in place for several years that has cameras all over the city. Bridgeport has been doing it as well, New Haven is just trying to catch up. That's why it's such a pretty big investment on their part.

WSHU: Now, has there been anybody raising alarms about this? The ACLU, what are they saying about the increased surveillance?

DA: There have not been complaints, but there have been questions about it, by the ACLU and others. Specifically, the issue is the state keeps a significant amount of data.

If you're going through a traffic light in the city of New Haven, the number of cars that they're recording, they keep that information. At the moment in Connecticut, they keep it forever. So let's take, for example, Newington. I think eventually, they hope to be able to hook up with Hartford, West Hartford, Wethersfield and have regional surveillance. So, you know, they would be able to track your car driving through Hartford at 5:00 and Newington at 6:30 and Wethersfield at 7:00 if that's what you were doing. And they would always keep that data.

What the ACLU is suggesting is what some other states have done is to put a cap on the amount of time that this data can be stored unless the police can show that it's for an ongoing investigation.

WSHU: And some concerns were raised in New London about how some of these federal funds were being spent and the fact that there were other needs in the community that needed money?

DA: That's the other part of it besides the privacy issue, the second part of it is, you know, how do we spend the money? This is, in effect, a one-time windfall from the federal government. Do we spend the money on the police? Do we spend the money on public health? Do we spend the money on housing issues?

All the cities and towns are grappling with those issues, and specifically in New London, there were some people that were upset that the money, I think it was like $360,000, that they're spending on surveillance cameras. They felt that that money could have been better used to address housing issues, for example.

WSHU: And the pushback from cities like New Haven is that crime is a big issue. And that's the need to get more sophisticated in how they deal with crime. And surveillance is a big part of that.

DA: The pushback from police is exactly that, that the surveillance helps to solve crimes — that in New Haven, their homicide rate was the highest it's been in like 10 years last year. So their argument is that the surveillance camera is a law enforcement tool that in this day and age is necessary, and that that's a good use of this one-time funding.

WSHU: And that they shouldn't put limits on how much the police departments can spend on this.

DA: Exactly. I'll go back to Norwich. You know, there are two areas of the city that they have no cameras in right now. And the chief said, basically, our plan is to get the cameras in, you know, and it would have taken us, without this shot of funding, it would have taken us another five to 10 years to do that. So it's a way to speed up a process that in some cases has already started.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.