Cop body cams. Stun weapons. Sound detection of gunshots. Cameras catching red-light violators and speeders. Police use of drones. Video recording of law enforcement interrogations. Tiny computer chips in car registration stickers to track down, well, just about anybody.
Welcome to Connecticut's brave new world of electronic law enforcement.
And if you're thinking the list mentioned above sounds like something out of a Hollywood sci fi flick, consider that everything on it is already being used by Connecticut cops, is now being considered, or may be proposed soon.
There are those who get a spine-chilling "Big Brother is watching" sensation at the thought of law enforcement's new direction. But some of those same folks applaud the use of high-tech gear like police body cams and video cameras for interrogations because they believe it will cut down on cops violating people's constitutional rights.
It's pretty creepy to think government can always be watching you. One police department out West wanted to use a drone to patrol over city streets, ready to video record all activity.
On the other side of the electronic ledger, it's hard to believe East Haven would now be suffering a hideous police racial-profiling and abuse scandal if its cops had been wearing body cameras to record their actions. Around the corner in Branford, police are expanding their use of these small cameras attached to the front of a cop's uniform.
"I think it's best to come to the conclusion now that everybody is being recorded," says state Rep. Stephen Dargan, a West Haven Democrat and co-chairman of the legislature's Public Safety Committee. "Everybody just has to understand … that this is a new era of technology. People shouldn't be afraid of it."
Except that technology is almost always a double-edged sword.
Police use of Tasers in Connecticut is now nearly universal. Cops insist these 50,000-volt stun guns offer a non-lethal alternative that saves lives and prevents serious injuries to both civilians and cops.
Critics warn police are way too quick on the electronic draw, stunning people who shouldn't be stunned, like that Middletown high school kid who was Tased over a lunch-line dispute. There are already federal lawsuits charging that over-use of Tasers by Connecticut cops' have killed people — a charge state law enforcement types fiercely deny.
Last year, a study of police Taser use in New York state found cops used stun guns on folks who posed no real danger, shocked handcuffed prisoners, and that 58 percent of those Tased happened to be people of color.
In Connecticut, at least 10 people have died since 2005 after they were hit with police Tasers, according to official records, interviews and news reports. Last week, the Chief State's Attorney's issued a report exonerating Waterbury cops in the death of Marcus Brown, a 26-year-old man who died in May 2011 after he was arrested and stunned when he wouldn't stop trying to kick out the windows of a cop car.
No one doubts there are extraordinary technological possibilities opening up for law enforcement. Except sometimes it doesn't work.
New Haven put in a high-tech "acoustic surveillance" system in 2008 to locate where guns were being fired through sound detection. Earlier this month, police said they need to find out why 10 rounds from a .45 caliber handgun were apparently fired in Newhallville without registering on ShotSpotter.
Springfield's police reportedly love their gunshot location system, and last July Hartford was all set to jump on the bandwagon. That idea has now been put on hold at least temporarily, according to Hartford Police Department spokeswoman Nancy Mulroy. "But we've not ruled it out," she adds.
Connecticut's 2012 General Assembly is positively humming with high-tech law-enforcement legislation.
The makers of the expensive camera systems designed to catch red-light jumping drivers are putting on a heavy lobbying campaign to allow their use in Connecticut. Critics warn these things are more about bringing in heavy fines to help city budgets than about reducing accident stats.
The American Civil Liberties Union worries that the red-light camera program always assumes the driver of a violating car is the same person as the name to whom the vehicle is registered. Proving you weren't driving the car that day can be tough.
David McGuire, an ACLU staff lawyer, says his civil rights organization has even more objections to another bill dealing with putting "Radio Frequency Identification" on vehicles for registration purposes. This baby would have an "RFID" computer chip as part of a car registration sticker. The chip would then collect or hold data about the vehicle and give it up when hit with an "electromagnetic" reader.
Cops and Homeland Security types love the idea because it allows for some serious tracking and detection. "It's carrying a tracker around," warns McGuire, who also says these things can be hacked into by others.
Lawmakers are also thinking about passing a law that specifically says it's okay for citizens to video record cops in action. It was this issue that triggered a federal investigation into East Haven police harassment and abuse after cops there arrested a clergyman who was recording them.
Civil rights types like the idea of having more cameras on cops. McGuire says there's no real contradiction between that attitude and objecting to cop surveillance like those RFID tags or eyes-in-the-skies drone aircraft.
"Police are public officials and have much less expectation of privacy than you do as a private citizen," McGuire says. And a video recording of a policeman in action can't be used to track him down at home the way something like RFID can, he says.
"There's just an unbelievable amount of technology in criminal justice today," says Lawlor. "At the end of the day, it's probably a good thing … even though it's very intimidating to a lot of people."
And, he adds, these high-tech cop tools are only going to get more sophisticated.
"However much you're concerned about personal privacy now," says Lawlor, "just wait."
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