Yale Daily News

On Tuesday, Oct. 21, the New Haven Board of Alders Public Safety Committee met to discuss the newly approved body and dashboard cameras given to the New Haven Police Department to improve police accountability.

The Board of Alders had previously approved funding to hold police officers accountable for use of force and to exonerate them in the case of false accusations. A month ago, the alders decided to assign more body cameras and dashboard cameras to the NHPD, significantly expanding the amount of surveillance the department uses. On Oct. 21, the Board unanimously approved an NHPD proposal of 147 new dashboard cameras, 825 new body cameras, 350 new tasers and other supporting apparatuses in a $5.7 million contract with Axon Enterprises. 

This increase in cameras came in response to Connecticut House Bill 6004, also known as the Connecticut Police Accountability Act, passed in July 2020. Bill 6004 mandated the installation of dashboard cameras on patrol vehicles state-wide, covering the New Haven Police Department and the Yale Police Department. In March 2021, Mayor Justin Elicker proposed a budget of $4.5 million in total bonding for a five-year contract to update and replace body cameras, dash cameras and conducive electrical weapons, such as tasers.

Tuesday’s meeting was held to discuss the systems set in place for the new equipment and how footage has been processed and addressed in the past. Alders questioned the storage, categorization and reception to footage. The NHPD is currently seeing all-time lows in most categories of force employment, according to NHPD Captain David Zannelli, who helped lead the effort towards this new system. 

“The important thing with the body cameras is that we were way ahead of the curve compared to other large Connecticut agencies,” Zannelli said. “It’s been instrumental in not only exonerating officers and also showing the public that what they believe happened either did or did not happen.” 

The NHPD has seen an uptick in firearms display. According to Zannelli, the use of force is at an all-time low for taser employment and baton employment.

Every officer using force at a high-risk stop must fill out a use of force form for the department’s record. He noted that officers are required to fill out the form for any use of force above unresisted handcuffing and escorting. If officers use force, they are required to complete a form, and a supervisor must then review the forms on a monthly basis for content and accuracy to ensure the use of force is appropriate, taking into account the incident report, the footage and the internal affairs report.

“I’m happy to say that a lot of the time, [the use of force] is within reason, and for the small fraction of the time, we do take this very seriously,” Zannelli said. 

According to interim NHPD Chief Renee Dominguez, the newly approved designs for future purchases of body cameras and the dash cameras — which must be turned on during every encounter with the public —  will be activated by signal sidearm technology, which means that when a firearm is pulled, a taser is pointed or the rear door of the car is opened to put an arrestee in the vehicle, installation sensors automatically activate the cameras to begin recording. Officers are required to keep the cameras on from the start of the encounter to the end, with the exception of when they are acting in immediate self-defense or when HIPAA guidelines in the hospital mean that they are required to guarantee privacy of other patients, said Zannelli.

This expanded amount of surveillance generates a much larger body of footage, which then must be organized through an auditing process. 

“There’s this increase in the package[s] that we received,” Dominguez said. “It provides ease so we are not running into something where we know we should have had footage and we didn’t.”

Alder Brian Wingate, who is a representative for the Civilian Review Board, asked about the frequency with which the footage is reviewed. “In reference to this unlimited space to record… how often does the team go in and look at the recordings from the body camera?” 

The  process for reviewing footage begins with complaints. Dominguez can order an Internal Affairs investigation, called an “I” case. Alternatively, any New Haven resident can file a civilian complaint, called a “C” case. In 2020, Zannelli, Dominguez and their colleagues created an online complainant system to aid complainants who feared coming in-person and to make the police department more accessible during the pandemic. The police station also receives complaints through mail, lobbies of police substations, anonymous tips, prison mail or through the district manager or City Hall, he said. 

“Each month, we update statistics on the category of complaints so we know how to tweak in-service training,” Zannelli said. For example, the department reevaluates de-escalation tactics based on the data and creates new policies. In one past instance, too many incomplete reports resulted in commanders making a rule that officers needed to complete their reports by the end of the shift. Zannelli called this an “organic” process of commanders mitigating negative trends.

Though New Haven emphasizes community policing more than other cities, instances of community policing have been declining nationally over the last year as people remain indoors due to the pandemic and move away from more congested cities with higher crime rates, according to Chaz Carmon, president of Ice the Beef, a New Haven-based nonprofit that aims to curb gun violence.

“New Haven has a big stance on community policing,” said Carmon, who is not a member of the public safety committee. “Can we do more? Yes. We need our residents to join the department. We need people that live in our neighborhoods to join the department, and we need people who look like us policing the streets in our neighborhood. It would be the best community policing in the world if more residents were to join. Maybe we need to change the protocol a little bit on how we do the hiring and make it more accessible.” 

At the end of each week, the city’s Use of Force Task Force reviews all instances of use of force to ensure that they were appropriate, Zannelli said. 

“We use three different sets of heads… we look at it from a practical standpoint, a policy standpoint, and a training standpoint,” Zannelli said. Sometimes, disciplinary action is taken for police officers; other times, good behavior is rewarded: in the case of Officer Paul Vitale, his body camera footage of a fire rescue earned him an end-of-year award. 

“This [footage] helps us train better and find issues before they occur. We ask, is this a widespread department issue?” Dominguez said. “Maybe it’s policy, maybe it’s tactic — they are looked at by multiple people, all the way down to the street supervisor.”

Officer case logs can suggest repeated mistakes by the same officer, after which Zannelli or other leaders said they would approach the officer’s supervisor to give a written warning in an inspection report, potentially leading to disciplinary action. Alder Abby Roth asked if the NHPD would consider a project similar to the Newtown Police Department study, in which an associate professor of criminal justice at Sacred Heart University and his team analyzed 500 body camera videos over two years to vet and rate citizen satisfaction with police encounters in any capacity. 

“We absolutely would be [interested in that],” Dominguez said. “We have researchers from Yale often trying to do studies, and we were the first one that did community policing. We did door-knocks in New Haven under NHPD Lt. Monique Colon. Anything that would be able to show either way, we would be open to it. We’re always in search of more ways to support what we’re doing.” 

Carmon said that it is important to look at multiple sides of a situation involving use of force, instead of blaming individuals in the community for their actions. He voiced support for further data that could help in that effort. 

“Once you’ve found out that you’ve done something negative against your honor, you should definitely be terminated,” Carmon said. “It’s a step in the right direction to tell the right narrative… There are places in the country that still have no body cams –– that’s insane. We should definitely invest more, anything that can tell the narrative of what’s happening. So a bad cop doesn’t get away, and a bad person doesn’t get away as well.”

In partnership with the patrol department, officers upload uncategorized footage onto evidence.com or Axon, two online networks designed for accountability and security in law enforcement, and they tag the evidence with categories such as “arrest” or “noise complaint.” These affect retention time to facilitate data storage and make it easier for the police to recompile relevant evidence.

The complaint is sent to the patrol division, or if it is more serious, Internal Affairs keeps the complaint to investigate. False arrest, illegal search, racial profiling and lying on a police report are included in the category of more serious offenses. Once the IA case is closed, the case can then be made public to the Civilian Review Board. 

The Yale Police Department has its own Internal Affairs Department and orders, according to Zannelli. The NHPD has received civilian complaints mistaking YPD for NHPD and passes the information to the appropriate officers in such instances.  

Beyond body camera and dash camera surveillance, the NHPD and Elicker’s office are pushing for almost 500 more security cameras around the city, according to NBC Connecticut. American Civil Liberties Union executive director David McGuire noted concerns of racial profiling in an interview with NBC. The funding request for the installation of even more cameras around the city is still under review by the Board of Alders. Carmon added its support for more equipment supporting a safer and more documented community.  

“We should always invest in body cameras and anything that makes everyone safer,” Carmon said. “With gun violence, police brutality, and racism, [those] are decisions. You’re going to have some good people, and you’re going to have some bad people. It takes a village to raise a child, and no matter what is happening, we all have to come together as a community.”

The meeting took place at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 21. 

Correction, Oct. 26: this article previously misspelled Chaz Carmon’s name. It has been updated.

Sarah Feng is an associate editor for the Yale Daily News Magazine. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a first-year in Trumbull College majoring in English and Cognitive Science.