By Gregory B. Hladky
10:15 AM EDT, May 1, 2013
In East Haven, they are being installed to help prevent racial profiling by police. They've caught a state cop stealing from a dead man, and helped convict a Milford officer in a crash that killed two people.
In Russia, their widespread use helped document a fiery meteor shooting through the sky before exploding. And one American insurance company even thinks they're a great way for parents to keep track of how safely their teenagers are driving.
The common denominator here is the dashboard video camera. It's an increasingly sophisticated device that's been around in one form or another for at least a decade and that nearly everyone agrees can be extremely useful for law enforcement and the general public.
One problem seems to be that no one knows how many Connecticut police departments are actually using these types of cameras. The determining factor for who has them and who doesn't apparently has a lot to do with money.
"It's a very good tool for our people," says Connecticut State Police spokesman Lt. Paul Vance, who explains that all state police patrol cars have had dash cams for years. Vance adds he has no idea how widespread their use is by Connecticut cops.
Gov. Dannel Malloy's top criminal justice adviser, Michael Lawlor, shares Vance's opinion of the cameras. "It certainly makes a lot of sense," he says. Lawlor also doesn't know which police departments are using them and which aren't.
"It makes it very difficult for the bad guys to say they didn't do it or that they were brutalized by police when they weren't," Lawlor says of the onboard cameras. "Of course, it works both ways."
David McGuire, an attorney with the Connecticut chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, doubts that very many local police agencies in this state are using them right now. Which is something he'd like to see changed because, according to McGuire, dash cams "serve a really huge purpose of protecting the public against police brutality," as well as protecting officers from false accusations.
That's why East Haven is spending $115,000 to equip 16 patrol cars with cameras to record what's happening when their cops make a stop or an arrest.
The town has been pummeled by federal investigations into police racial profiling and abuse, including the arrest of four officers on federal charges and an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to enact a whole bunch of police reforms. There are also civil rights lawsuits pending that could cost East Haven taxpayers millions.
Had there been dash cams in East Haven police cars in the past, a lot of the abuses documented by a federal civil rights probe would either never have happened or would have been stopped much, much sooner.
East Haven's move to install dash cams has prompted calls by Bridgeport's NAACP for their city's police to do the same.
Connecticut State Police do have dashboard cameras installed in something like 800 patrol cruisers.
How useful that can be was dramatically demonstrated last September when a state police dash cam helped document the theft of $3,700 from an accident victim by veteran Trooper Aaron "AJ" Huntsman. The camera caught Huntsman taking valuables from the body of 49-year-old John Scalesse, who was lying in a pool of blood after his motorcycle smashed into a construction truck on the Merritt Parkway in Fairfield. Scalesse died from his injuries.
Milford police also have cameras in their cars, and the video recording of a fatal accident in 2009 was instrumental in the conviction in January of fired Milford cop Jason R. Anderson.
Anderson was speeding along the Boston Post Road in Orange when his patrol car rammed a car driven by David Servin. The police cruiser was traveling at 94 mph just before it hit, despite the fact that Anderson wasn't responding to an emergency call and didn't have his police lights or siren on. Even though Servin was drunk and failed to stop at a blinking red light, Anderson was sentenced to five years for reckless driving and misconduct with a motor vehicle.
Servin and his girlfriend, Ashlie Krakowski, were killed instantly. They were both teenagers.
So if it's such a good idea and so many people want it, you might be asking about now why all of Connecticut's police departments don't have dash cams in all their cars.
The answer, says Cromwell Police Chief Anthony Salvatore, most likely has to do with cost. He says his department is now in the process of putting dash cams into its 10-vehicle fleet at a cost of about $5,000 per car. So far, Salvatore says about half of Cromwell's cop cars now have the cameras.
Cost is the big reason why it's taking so long to get these dash cams in the cars, says Salvatore: "I'd love to have them [in every patrol car] but at $5,000 per unit..."
Lawlor says the issue of why some departments have car cameras and others don't is "very much a mixed bag." He admits that part of the reason is certainly that many local police agencies simply don't think they can afford it.
State lawmakers are very unlikely to require cities and towns to install cop dash cams, says Lawlor, because it would be another of those detested "unfunded mandates" municipal leaders are always bitching about. And the deficit-ridden state isn't about to try and find the money to pay for those dash cams.
"They can't mandate it," insists Salvatore, "unless the state provides the funds."
McGuire is more than a bit skeptical about the lack-of-money excuse. He points out that lots of departments seem to be able to get grants to pay for stuff like automatic license plate readers.
Meanwhile, there are reports that mini-cameras in civilian cars and even on bicycle helmets, as a way of recording accidents and abuses, may be spreading.
The widespread use of dash cams in private cars in Russia has been attributed to drivers in that nation being really worried about police corruption, con artists trying to claim they were hit, and difficulty in getting insurance accident claims approved.
Connecticut Insurance Department spokeswoman Donna Tommelleo says experts in her agency know of no insurance company in Connecticut offering policies or riders involving dash cams.
At least one U.S. firm, American Family Insurance, is providing free dash cams to its customers as part of a safe teenage driving program. The idea is the camera footage allows parents to check on how safely their teens are driving.
Some experts say some truckers have also taken to using dash cams to combat unfair claims that they're always the ones responsible for truck/car mishaps. And lots of new cars already use rear-view cameras as a back-up safety device.
Lawlor believes increasing use of dash cams by police and others is perhaps the logical next step in our increasingly video-recorded society. And the next technological advance — tiny body cameras on police uniforms — is already being experimented with by local departments in Branford and Milford.
"It's going to be very hard to lie in the future and get away with it," says Lawlor, whether you're a cop or a civilian.
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