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New London police poised to start wearing body cameras

New London —  Police Chief Peter Reichard envisions every police officer in his department wearing body cameras by the fall, after the City Council voted unanimously Monday to authorize the mayor to sign a $1.2 million contract to buy cameras and related equipment.

The five-year contract with Axon Enterprise Inc. covers a bundle of technologies new to the department and also includes Tasers, police vehicle cameras and cloud storage of all video footage.

The city has additionally budgeted for a full-time information technology position, a civilian who will aid in training and the management of the camera system.

The department is in the process of finalizing an agreement with the police union on a series of policies and procedures for use of the cameras.

The cameras are expected to be activated manually by officers during most interactions with the public and automatically start recording when the officer draws a gun or Taser or activates lights on a police cruiser. The cameras are also connected via Bluetooth and activated when another officer in close proximity triggers his or her camera.

Reichard said in an interview that he was always in favor of the use of body cameras "personally and professionally," well before the recent protests aimed at police over the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis.

"Myself and my officers, we don't tolerate that kind of abuse that takes place by police officers," Reichard said. "There's no need for that to be in law enforcement at all, anywhere. We strive to do better than anybody else."

He said video footage is a way to provide transparency and accountability for citizens while protecting officers against frivolous complaints. Behaviors change, Reichard said, when people know they are being recorded.

The city police department five years ago was poised to become the first area police department to equip its officers with body cameras. The City Council in 2015 even authorized some funding toward that goal.

Reichard said antiquated technology at the department was one of the major obstacles, where the planned upgrades to the department's technological infrastructure — linked to its merging of the department's emergency dispatch system with Waterford — now make it possible.

Reichard said his sense is that most officers want the cameras since it provides a level of protection from accusations that might come from short video clips taken on a cell phone. Officers' cameras will provide what he said is footage of an entire incident, start to finish, without the ability to edit any video.

As for officers' behavior, Reichard said they know their videos will be monitored and "will continue to do the job they were trained to do."

New London NAACP President Jean Jordan said in an interview that she thought cameras were something every police department needed.

"Body cameras keep people accountable, not just police but citizens also," Jordan said. "It's an accountability issue. We have 5% of police who do not do the right thing and that's reason enough. If I was a police officer I would want to be able to say, 'Look, this is what happened.'"

Jordan said the one thing she will be watching for in the rules and procedures being developed by the department is "What happens to an officer that does not turn on their body camera?"

"They need to be up front about that," she said.

Councilor Curtis Goodwin on Monday asked the chief whether officers would undergo cultural competency training, or "anything having to do with nonlethal options or training."

"In the current climate we're in, it's super imperative we take note on the cultural competency training to make sure we're ahead of the curve and we're kind of a model city in doing that," Goodwin said.

Reichard said training will include "deescalation" tactics and the department has attended "implicit bias" training provided by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Local police union President Todd Lynch said in an interview that the union continues to work with the city and police chief to finalize an agreement on policies and procedures with some concern over the cost, given the ongoing shortage of police officers.

The one lingering concern, Lynch said, is that the cost of the cameras is taking priority over the hiring of more officers.

Echoing comments from Councilor John Satti on Monday, Lynch said he wondered what would happen in the event of a budget shortfall at the department.

"This is a nice thing to have. We're on board, especially in today's world, but we want to make sure there are some types of checks and balances to ensure this isn't going to remain in the budget while officers get laid off or it prevents us from hiring," Lynch said.

Lynch said he also thinks it would have been prudent for the city to finalize the policies and procedures before a contract was signed.

Funding for year one of the contract, about $200,000, is expected to come from a 2015 bond authorization for public safety equipment and subsequent years would need to be budgeted. Reichard said he expects the department to absorb the costs of the contract though the city would seek any available state funding.

G.smith@theday.com

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