State's Highway Cameras See But Don't Tell

AS THE INVESTIGATION CONTINUES into a multi-car crash on Interstate 95 in East Lyme that killed three people Nov. 2, police will be using measurements, eyewitnesses, photographs and other tools to find out how a tanker truck drove through the center barrier and into oncoming traffic, striking a southbound tractor-trailer and four cars.

The one tool they won't be using is video footage.

"Unfortunately, statute doesn't allow us to use cameras for enforcement," said Lt. J. Paul Vance, spokesman for the state police.

The state highway system is equipped with more than 300 cameras -- a fiber-optic network of teardrop-shaped eyes that can turn 360 degrees, zoom out and zoom in (close enough to read a license plate in some cases) -- but the Connecticut Department of Transportation cameras do not record, said DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick.

"We do get a lot of (Freedom of Information) requests," Nursick said, "folks asking for the 'quote -unquote' recordings. But there aren't any recordings."

Nursick said there would be dozens of obstacles to having the cameras record and making the footage available to law enforcement, not the least of which is a statute that disallows such use.

"Certainly there are members of the public who would have a problem with Big Brother looking down on us," Nursick said.

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At the DOT operations center in Newington, Rick DeMatties, highway operations crew leader, maneuvered a joystick on his keyboard Thursday to turn and zoom in on a stranded motorist.

In front of him, 20 small TV monitors surrounded a large screen -- covering the length and height of a wall. One monitor displayed the news, while the others showed cars and trucks on interstates 91 and 84.

It was about 2 p.m., and, so far, the roads looked clear.

From his chair, DeMatties has direct access to about 130 cameras, a radar system that indicates congested traffic areas using a color-coded speed tracking system, weather conditions and other highway management tools.

DeMatties said, for the most part, the DOT is clued in to major incidents from their eyes and ears on the ground, including state and local police and the DOT crews that roam the highways. Alerted by their reports, said DeMatties, he can bring up the camera assigned to that area, if there is one, and conduct "incident management."

Switching the large screen to view Exit 28 on I-91 -- the entrance to the Berlin Turnpike -- he explained that if an accident were to occur in that area, he could turn on highway message signs to detour motorists onto the turnpike, all from his office chair.

"We're part of what we call an incident management team," he said. "...We're not just called in for sand anymore."

The operations center can dispatch a team to handle anything from a dead raccoon to a major traffic accident to a tree down on the roadway, he said. But just two operators are watching the screens at any given time, and it is impossible, he said, to watch all the cameras at once.

In Bridgeport, the state's other operations center controls about 200 cameras that monitor I-95 and I-395, including 23 cameras viewing I-95 between Old Saybrook and Stonington and I-395 through Montville and Norwich.

Operators of each center can view what the other is seeing on their big screens, said Nursick.

At Troop G in Bridgeport, state troopers are able to view the cameras, said Lt. Louis J. Fusaro Jr., commanding officer at Troop E in Montville. Fusaro said he has spoken to the DOT about hooking Troop E into the cameras as well.

State troopers cannot control the cameras; they can only view what the DOT is seeing.

Fusaro said Troop G does not record the footage and neither would Troop E.

"We can certainly do our investigations without it. Would it be a useful tool? It might be," he said.

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Fusaro said the cameras are not a part of an investigation into the Nov. 2 I-95 crash. To his knowledge, no one was watching a camera near the exit where the crash occurred at the time of the incident.

"It's going to be a long investigation. I know people want to see it. But it's going to take a long time. It's going to take months," he said.

Nursick said the department's position on using the cameras for law enforcement is "neutral."

Some of the cameras, because of their placement, cannot zoom in to the license plate level, he said. And at any given time, he said, there is no telling where a camera will be pointed, meaning that even if a camera could have recorded the Nov. 2 crash, it might have been facing the wrong direction at the key moment.

The system, which started with just two cameras in 1995, is still dozens of cameras away from fully covering every stretch of the highway system, said Nursick, and the cameras cannot see in the dark.

Recorded footage would also require extra time and money for DOT.

The department would have to save and store the footage and answer what Nursick said would be a "flood" of FOI requests from attorneys and others to view the footage.

The employees at DOT's two operations centers are not trained in law enforcement and if law enforcement personnel were allowed to operate the cameras, the two agencies could have conflicting interests.

"We would want to make sure that from an incident management perspective we remain as effective as possible," he said.

Additionally, the federal government, which paid for the cameras, allotted the funds to be used for incident management only, meaning if the cameras were going to be used for law enforcement purposes, the agreement would need to be renegotiated, Nursick said.

"In Connecticut, you couldn't just take a snapshot of a driver's license plate and mail them a ticket. The statute would need to be changed to do that," he said.

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