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Groton, Mashantucket police chiefs speak highly of body cameras

September 21, 2018

Even as more police agencies adopt body cameras, just two local departments have done so, but leaders of both spoke highly of the devices this week.

The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Police Department introduced shoulder-mounted TASER cameras for its 30 to 35 officers in January 2016. Although much of the department’s coverage area already is under surveillance — officers largely patrol the Foxwoods Resort Casino — the body cameras brought new perspectives and audio to the picture.

“A lot of departments are leery, but it’s done nothing but help us,” Chief William Dittman said. “It’s one of the biggest plusses for law enforcement in who knows how long.”

Dittman said complaints are down and fewer officers spend time testifying in court because the footage speaks for itself.

“We don’t even get to the complaint anymore,” he said. “Officers just say, ‘Would you like to look at the video?’ And everybody says, ‘No, we’re good.’”

Dittman said the cameras also cleared officers when 23-year-old Michael Goodale of Groton jumped to his death from a parking garage in September.

“You could hear the sergeant saying, ‘Drop the gun, drop the gun, don’t jump,’” Dittman said. “And the next thing you know you hear shots.”

The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled Goodale’s death a suicide.

Dittman said he didn’t hear officers express concerns about being watched when the cameras were introduced but did have trouble getting them to remember to turn on the cameras.

“Now, it’s just second nature,” he said.

Dittman said he has included funding to replace all of the cameras, whose typical lifespan is about three years, in his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The force spent about 14,000 for the cameras and 98,998 state grant to get the cameras, software and a year of unlimited storage on evidence.com.

Chief Louis J. Fusaro Jr. said most of the almost 65 officers have found them to be “better than expected.”

Concerned their superiors may watch their behavior more closely and punish them unduly, some officers remain reluctant, Fusaro said, “but I think having body cameras has proven to be more of an asset than anything else.”

A union leader declined to be interviewed for this story because the officers he represents don’t agree on whether the cameras are good, Fusaro said.

Fusaro said he and other administrators, as required by the state, audit the video randomly to ensure officers are following the department’s policy, which is nearly identical to that of the state Police Officer Standards and Training Council.

Capt. Steven Sinagra said the audits haven’t revealed anyone intentionally not turning on a camera or disobeying the guidelines for storage and labeling.

Fusaro said the footage has helped police resolve some complaints, including one he said would have taken many hours to investigate and still may have been inconclusive.

“The video quickly put it to bed,” Fusaro said.

Deputy Chief Paul Gately said most surprising to him is the kindness he has seen officers display during mundane calls.

“We’re not out there every day,” he said. “I’ve come across some awesome situations and have seen true professionalism (while auditing the video footage). It’s been humbling, really.”

‘The video doesn’t lie’

Speaking from a room in police headquarters Tuesday, Fusaro, Gately and Sinagra outlined other useful aspects of the cameras. Cloud storage makes it easy to show footage in courtrooms, for example, and easy for officers to review their own cases before writing reports — even when they aren’t at headquarters.

“Some of the things people do, when officers write it down and somebody reads it, they’re like, ‘There’s no way that happened,’” Sinagra said. “But when it’s on video, there’s no way to dispute it. The video doesn’t lie.”

In a POLICE Magazine survey published this month, 88 percent of 422 responding officers said they liked wearing a body camera while on duty, even as 38 percent said the footage had gotten them or another officer from their agency in trouble.

Having footage of real situations also is useful when training new officers, Fusaro said.

Town police will have to pay storage and maintenance costs for the remainder of the five-year contract — an estimated 40,000 annually — but also will get all-new cameras two-and-a-half years in.

Fusaro said it’s too soon to say what the department will do when the contract is up — the force may consider a model that integrates with its in-car cameras, for example — but as of now he doesn’t plan to get rid of body cameras.

“More often than not, the cameras are demonstrating officers’ actions were professional and appropriate, and that’s a good message for us to get out there,” he said.

Trouble with access 

Though he believes body cameras can be useful tools, David McGuire, executive director of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, isn’t content with the policies governing the cameras.

“What we’re seeing is a patchwork of different policies — none particularly good — that makes it difficult for the public and the media to get access to footage in a timely manner,” McGuire said.

McGuire said regional state’s attorney’s offices and police often send reporters and residents back and forth, with each saying it’s the other agency’s responsibility to determine whether to release the footage.

Police say it can take hours to redact a single incident — face-blurring technology isn’t perfect, and the more officers involved, the more videos there are — and state’s attorneys say distributing body camera footage could influence potential jurors.

McGuire said the state has called on law enforcement, legislators and advocates to convene a task force to address the concerns but so far nothing has come of that.

McGuire pointed to the Los Angeles Police Department, which in March agreed to release footage within 45 days of a given incident.

“We’re not asking for something that hasn’t been done anywhere else,” McGuire said.

l.boyle@theday.com

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