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What has changed since Connecticut mandated police body cameras?

A police officer wears a body camera on his chest.
Molly Ingram
A police officer wears a body camera on his chest.

Connecticut police have been required to wear body cameras for two years as part of the 2020 police accountability law. How have they changed policing and prosecuting in the state?

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Mark Pazniokas to discuss his article, “CT has required police body cameras for two years. What’s changed?,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, Paz. You write that police body-worn cameras have been in use in Connecticut since 2015. But they only became mandatory in 2021. That's because of the 2020 police accountability law passed in the wake of the George Floyd incident. How have things changed in Connecticut since then?

MP: Well, the one thing that's quite clear is transparency. There is greater transparency into all these critical incidents given that the use of body-worn cameras is now universal for state and police officers. There's still a little wrinkle with federal law enforcement, but that's generally not where these incidents occur. But the other thing that's been striking is that these videos, when something happens, they're released almost immediately. State law dictates that no later than 96 hours after an incident, these videos have to be released. The videos must be made public.

Robert J. Devlin Jr. who is the first inspector general, is the individual responsible for reviewing all police use of deadly force, whether it resulted in death or not. All shootings, use of chokeholds, that kind of thing. And he has been very quick to turn around these videos and put them out. Initially there was reluctance by police about whether this would be good or bad. And there has been a conclusion on the part of police as well as municipal officials, it is better to get this stuff out. Whether it's good, bad or indifferent, just get it out and let the public see, in many instances, what the officer saw.

WSHU: And this position of inspector general was created as part of the 2020 police accountability law.

MP: Yes, this is a new position. It's a centralized responsibility for the review of police use of force. Prior to this, these incidents would be parceled out to regional states attorneys. So if there was a shooting in Hartford, for example, it would be assigned to a state's attorney elsewhere. So there would be a little bit greater degree of independence. Now, it's all done by the Office of Inspector General, which is based at the Chief State's Attorney's Office, the top prosecutor in Connecticut.

WSHU: Now, what's the significance of these videos being released so quickly? And how is that different from the rest of the country?

MP: So prior to the passage of the law, there was an incident in Hartford, where the police were trying to serve an arrest warrant on somebody who was wanted in some shootings. And there was confrontation at the end of a chase. And this guy was shot while he was being dragged from a cruiser. And the view of some of the eyewitnesses was pretty alarming. You know, the question was, was this necessary? And the mayor of Hartford at that point was urging the prosecutor who had that case to quickly put out the video, even though the law was unclear, because he knew that the video showed what those witnesses could not see, which is that the man who was shot by the police was actually holding a gun in his hand, and was pointing it at the cops. And so you know, Mayor Luke Bronin, says it was very important in Hartford for the public to see that.

Unlike some other places where there's been this kind of lingering controversy or questions about what happened, or even who was involved. There's a case that's going on now in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There was a college student who seemed to be having some mental health crisis, he had a knife. He was shot to death by a Cambridge police officer. They did not have body-worn cameras, but Cambridge has not even disclosed who the officer was. This incident happened in January of this year. So eight, nine months later, there's still questions and this has become a big controversy in Cambridge.

And you contrast that with what happened in Hartford in 2019, even before the law required the release. There was really no controversy. I'm not saying everybody was pleased with the police action, but at least you can see what had happened. And you know, the mayor of Hartford, police officers and others all say this clearly is healthier for people to see, and get a quick glance as to what happened. And then there'll be a more detailed investigation as to whether an officer was justified or not in the use of deadly force.

WSHU: And you say here that there's research that has found that complaints actually dropped when these videos are quickly released.

MP: Yeah, the jury's still out about whether it affected use of force. But what is clear is that more mundane complaints, was an officer rude, did an officer use language that was inappropriate? Those kinds of complaints, the early research shows, really shrink in number because it's very easy. In the old days, it was what the cops insisted happened and what the citizens insisted happened. Now you go to the video, and you can hear and see the police officer, or at least the police officers view, the quality of these cameras in the audio is pretty amazing.

You know, in the old days, when they started with these dash cameras, which were attached to an old VHS recorder in the trunk of the cruiser, the quality was pretty bad. But digital technology is quite amazing. And so I mean, that's been good for everybody that you can see what happened in here. Where it gets more difficult, is in some of these closer calls. In the incident in which a state trooper has been charged with manslaughter for the shooting death of a 19-year-old man in West Haven, the totality of the evidence has led Devlin to conclude that the officer did not act reasonably.

But the interesting thing is the body camera that the trooper was wearing does not really resolve anything because of how he was crouched. So what the camera was recording was not exactly what the trooper was seeing. But again, that was the totality of the evidence, which was that, you know, the officer shot into a closed vehicle and you know, shooting a man who was armed with a knife and the question was, did the officer reasonably believe another officer was coming into the car at that point and was in imminent danger.

WSHU: But not everyone has accepted that the police accountability law does not violate some civil liberties and things like that. You say the ACLU has some issues with the law?

MP: Yes, primarily what the accountability law did not change is the legal standard, which is that a police officer has a reasonable belief that the officer or a third party was in imminent danger. And that is written to give a police officer in the midst of a very tense situation the benefit of the doubt.

And by the way, the United States Supreme Court has also ruled in cases and set that similar standard. So somebody I talked to at the ACLU said, look, officers are judged by a different standard than other people are. And really what that means is a police officer does not have to be correct in the belief that somebody was reaching for a gun, it may turn out the officer was wrong. The legal standard is did the officer have a reasonable belief that that person was reaching for a gun?

In the case of the one instance in which an officer has been charged with a crime since the passage of the accountability law, the question is going to come down to that trooper. Can he show he had a reasonable belief in thinking that the fact that a guy in a locked car with a knife was a threat to another officer, who as it turned out, had no intention of getting into that car? So the question is going to be whether you see the word reasonable over and over and over again. And that's what will be before a jury at some point in Connecticut on that. But that's the bigger complaint from the ACLU, that that basic standard has not changed. But I don't see how that standard can change based on the Supreme Court precedent.

WSHU: In the meantime, it seems as if we have made some progress by Connecticut having body-worn cameras mandated for all police officers in the state.

MP: Absolutely. You know, transparency is a benefit unto itself. But the other question is, what will we learn from these videos? So Robert Devlin in his reports, not only does he make a legal conclusion about whether the use of force was justified, in many of these reports, there also is a narrative, sometimes making suggestions about 'Yes, the officer was justified, but could it have been handled differently?' And that comports with what we're seeing nationally by police research groups, particularly dealing with individuals who have mental illness or are in extreme distress. Because the use of these videos is showing that suicide by cop is probably more common than people originally thought.

So the question is, in cases where the police are responding to someone who does not have a firearm, and they're not threatening somebody else, can you slow things down? Can you wait for somebody who has mental health background to come in and and perhaps take the time to see if it could be resolved without a police officer going in, in the case of people with a knife, risking the officer's life and then when the person comes forward, inevitably that that individual ends up getting shot. And you know, we've seen those cases in Connecticut. There are several cases in Connecticut in the last two years where you see the police officer retreating. You see the police officer backing away from somebody with a knife. And then ultimately, they decide they have no place else to go. And then a shot is fired. We've seen that in several instances.

WSHU: One in Manchester, where the police officer actually backed out of the house.

MP: The police officer backed out of the house, the individual with a knife was taunting the police officer, basically challenged her to shoot him and she backed out into a courtyard and then ultimately shot him, hit him in the hip and he was wounded and will recover. In some of these incidents, they're over in the blink of an eye. There was an incident in Middletown in August, where an officer was investigating a report of glass breaking and saw a man with a hammer. And she asked him to please put it down. And he just turned and sprinted right at her swinging the claw hammer striking her and she shot him. But the entire video of that incident was just under 30 seconds.

WSHU: Looking at this whole thing, it seems like Connecticut is making some progress.

MP: Yeah, there's transparency, there is the potential for greater training and greater understanding of how officers can and should respond to people who are in distress. And then again, ultimately it is of great use to the public and to the inspector general to determine what happened in the midst of one of these very tense confrontations.

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.