Ridgefield considers buying police cams before 2022 deadline
RIDGEFIELD — Body cameras and dashboard cameras will soon watch interactions between town police officers and the public.
“For accountability and transparency, it’s very beneficial for both the town and the department,” Police Chief Jeff Kreitz said.
“I think they’re beneficial,” Kreitz said of the cameras. “You have a video and a record. It helps paint a picture of anything that occurred.”
Police body and dashboard cameras are among the political responses to concerns raised by the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement, and by July 2022 body and dashboard cameras must be standard equipment for police departments throughout Connecticut.
“Due to the Police Accountability Bill passed by the legislature, there is a requirement that all police officers have body cameras,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi told the selectmen last week. “We do not have body cameras. We’re going to have to make the investment.”
The cost to outfit all 42 sworn Ridgefield police officers — from the chief on down — with body cameras, and put dash cameras on 14 to 16 police cars was not anticipated when the town budget was put together last winter and approved last spring.
“It’s going to range anywhere from $225,000 to $350,000, so the ballpark I would go with is about $300,000,” Kreitz said.
The program involves purchasing the cameras, storing the video images for a period of time, which can be done by purchasing a server to hold the footage, or by paying to have the images stored.
Kreitz prefers purchasing a server, which is a one-time cost of about $70,000 to $85,000 — and that figure has been calculated into his $300,000 estimate, he said.
While the Police Accountability Act makes body and dashboard cameras mandatory for all departments by July 2022, Kreitz doesn’t see any benefit to waiting almost two years.
The standard procedure would be to request money for the cameras in the next town budget — which would be put together this winter and approved in spring 2021.
But the money would be approved before then as a special appropriation, which would require action by the Police Commission, the Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance, and then voters at a town meeting — a path Kreitz prefers because it would get the cameras on officers sooner.
“I would rather have them as soon as possible,” he said.
A special appropriation could be financed with a supplemental tax bill, but the the $225,000 to $350,000 could also be taken from the town’s roughly $15 million surplus fund balance.
There is 50 percent reimbursement available from the state, at least in theory — the money appropriated by the legislature isn’t expected to be enough for all the municipalities that will qualify for it.
“There’s $500,000 left that we would apply for,” Marconi told the selectmen.
“Of all the towns that need it, there’s $500,000 left?” Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark asked.
“It’s nothing,” Marconi agreed.
“The program started back in 2012, with 100 percent reimbursement,” Marconi said.
In July 2018-19, he said, the reimbursement level dropped to 50 percent. And it will drop again at the end of this budget year on June 30 2021, according to Kreitz.
“There is grant money available, that is at 50 percent reimbursement while the money lasts, if purchased and approved before June 2021,“ Kreitz said. “The way the grant works, you have to make the purchase first.”
In the following fiscal year, the level of reimbursement declines.
“After that, there is grant money still available, but it’s 30 percent for non-distressed communities, and 50 percent for distressed communities,” Kreitz said.
Relatively affluent and fiscally sound, Ridgefield is considered a non-distressed community by the state.
Marconi was not optimistic about getting reimbursement.
“My feeling is what little money is left is going to be gone,” he told the selectmen.
“If we want to apply for reimbursement, we have to do it in this budget cycle,” Kozlark said.
Marconi then raised the possibility of going for a special appropriation outside the usual budget cycle — which would still be an involved process.
“Let say the Police Commission passed, it, the Board of Selectmen passed it, the Board of Finance passed it and it headed to a town meeting — that would be December,” Marconi said.
If the appropriation is made as part of the regular budget cycle, it would be approved in May, but the purchase couldn’t be made until July 1 when the new fiscal year starts.
Marconi told the selectmen that the Police Department conducted research and identified the equipment it wants to use.
“Wilton has had it for several years,” Marconi said. “...The reports back are it’s an excellent system. This is what they want to go with.”
Wilton acquired VIEVU body cameras in 2016. The Wilton police chief said at the time that the cameras’ specifications were based on the human eye so they could capture, for instance, what was actually visible to an officer entering a darkened building.
Marconi told the selectmen the Ridgefield Police needed to get prices on comparable equipment from at least three manufacturers — the required bidding procedure for town purchases.
“They’re in the process of doing that,” he said.
In an interview with Hearst Connecticut Media on Sunday, Kreitz said a camera provides an objective recording of events, which he said can be helpful if there are complaints, or differing versions of interactions between officers and the public.
“We get very few complaints, and that may be the reason why we didn’t get them earlier,” Kreitz said of the cameras.
“Previously, we had looked at it,” he said. “We did not go with it at that time.”
The body and dashboard cameras have been discussed with the police officers’ union.
“I believe the union’s in favor. I did speak with them,” Kreitz said.
“I think it’s a great tool. We strive for transparency, strengthening the accountability,” Kreitz said. “...It’s great for administration. It’s helpful for investigative stuff. If there’s any incident or complaint against an officer, it’s an objective recording and an independent record of the events that transpired.”